As we’ll do every week to get you ready for the upcoming game, our X Factor of the week. Sometimes it’s a player, unit, concept, or scheme. Our X Factor for tomorrow’s game against the Cleveland Browns.
X Factor: Alejandro Villanueva
An obvious choice if there ever was one. Villanueva vs Myles Garrett is one of the critical trench matchups. Both guys are having terrific starts to the year. Garrett is second in the league in sacks with six of them, only trailing Aaron Donald’s 7.5. Putting aside the whole hitting Mason Rudolph upside his head thing, he’s one of football’s premier pass rushers.
But Villanueva is off to a fantastic start, too. He’s logged every single snap this season yet hasn’t allowed a sack. A notoriously slow starter, he’s gotten off to a hot start but tomorrow will be his litmus test. There’s no question Garrett has gotten the better of Villanueva in their recent matchups. In six matchups over the past three seasons, Villanueva’s allowed three sacks. That may not sound like much but extrapolate that over a sixteen game slate, and that’s an average of eight sacks given up.
The winner of this battle will help determine the outcome of the game. If Villanueva holds up, doesn’t allow a sack, gives up only a pressure or two, the Steelers probably win this one. Garrett is a big chunk of the team’s pass rush. He has six of the team’s 12 sacks and ten QB hits – no other Brown has more than two. Slow him down and Roethlisberger’s going to have time in the pocket. Let Garrett into the backfield and it could be a long day.
Of course, Villanueva alone won’t be responsible for handling Garrett. Chukwuma Okorafor is going to see him a handful of times too. Garrett isn’t an exclusive RDE the way Bud Dupree is an exclusive ROLB. They’ve been moving him around, especially when the other side is a better matchup. You can bet they’re going to test a pretty young guy like Okorafor who hasn’t seen much of Garrett before.
Regardless of where he lines up, the Steelers will have to be thoughtful about their alignment and tight ends/running backs chipping in an effort to slow him down. The tackle and chipper have to be on the same page; if they aren’t, it can actually hinder pass pro. So throw o-line coach Shaun Sarrett and OC Randy Fichtner as important pieces in the gameplan to prevent Garrett from taking over.