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Steelers Film Room: How Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler stopped Myles Garrett and Genard Avery

While they faced two fearsome pass rushers, Villanueva and Feiler held them in check almost the whole game.

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

With Marcus Gilbert out, I feared this was the one week Steelers fans didn’t want Matt Feiler starting, but he certainly rose to the occasion. He held heralded rookie pass-rusher Genard Avery in check all day, as did Alejandro Villanueva with Myles Garrett. Listen, we all know how great this offensive line is, and I would argue it’s the best in the entire NFL. Mike Munchak is a wizard and many teams have little to no success against this Steelers offensive line because of Munchak’s prowess as a teacher. He is, in my opinion, the best assistant coach in the NFL period, so we’re extremely blessed to have him on staff. Coming into this matchup, Villanueva and Feiler were the primary points of concern on the OL.

So, it’s time to teach you guys how offensive linemen pass protect. There are three definitive sets: Jump set, 45 set, vertical set. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, but for a little rundown, here you go:

The jump set is used for being as aggressive as possible in pass protection. This isn’t passive at all. Right after your first step, or kick, you want to run straight up and get your hands inside of the defender. The punch has to be timed perfectly, or you will get beat to edge every time. Your base has to be perfectly even, or you leave the edge open as well. The Steelers like this a lot, seeing as Ben Roethlisberger has been using 3-step drops this season and jump sets are great for that. Also, play-action is where this is utilized, and the Steelers used more play-action this week than any week prior. I don’t know if Feiler’s comfort level with the jump set is better, and that’s a possible reason why, but it did work.

A 45 set is what it sounds like. The tackle comes out at a 45 degree angle and the key difference is that it’s used when the edge or lineman is off the body of the lineman — in other words, in between gaps and not directly lined up closer to their near side. This, too is aggressive, but contact is made on the second kick, and you have to have good punching ability here, otherwise you get cooked inside. This is a set where you can “run them up the arc.” It’s used on the same as jump set, but also is more situational, because if there’s guard help expected, you can bet the tackle will use this.

A vertical set is as passive as it gets, but it’s the most common too. The Steelers use it all the time when they want to get their vertical game going. If you have a problem with your hips, this is your go-to choice. The hips always stay square and it helps lines communicate easier. Unfortunately, this does leave the QB a bit close to a defender and, if the defender bull rushes and the QB gets jittery, it’s no bueno. You have to stay square, or the inside shoulder is wide open too. However, if the set is truly mastered, good luck trying to beat the tackles.

Now that’s out of the way, you can observe how Feiler and Villanueva control the EDGE rushers, and the key is to mix up these various sets to keep the pass-rusher guessing. You’ll see they do it incredibly effectively. With Feiler having a speed rusher in Avery, and more of a variated rusher in Ogbah to deal with, his job is not nearly as easy as you would think. Of course, Myles Garrett is Myles Garrett.

Let’s get the negative out of the way first, because Feiler does have one nasty pass set here

I’m certain Feiler got a tongue-lashing from Munchak about his base here. It’s too wide and causes his hips and shoulders to give his inside shoulder loose. When you face a guy like Avery, he’ll win inside all day. You have to stay square and, dare I say it, even though ideally you want the base to be even, you’d rather it be narrow so that you can still recover and push the guy around the arc.

As for Alejandro Villanueva, he was bested too, but I can’t really blame him at all. The pass set wasn’t even bad, but Garrett is just a freak.

I mean Villanueva literally has his punch timed perfectly and has his hands inside Garrett, but Garrett bench presses his hands off and literally rips right through. Here’s more evidence that Garrett is a complete stud. With how reactive Garrett was as well, he clearly expected the 45 set there, and Villanueva used it frequently at the beginning of the game. Also, I have no clue if Villanueva would have blocked him if he didn’t get tripped by Foster, but Garrett looks impressive here regardless.

I love how Villanueva absolutely cuts off Garrett’s angle to Ben as he adjusts his 45 set more to a 30 set. It works beautifully well as his base stays square and he stonewalls Garrett here. Something I want to take note of is just how low Villanueva is playing with his pads. He’s near even with Garrett’s and leverage wins in football. That punch was beautiful too. The best guy who gets no credit this year is Villanueva. He’s playing at a Pro Bowl level right now.

Big Al actually gets vertical here and Garrett is clearly caught off guard. He clearly expected jump and went for the edge, but great tackles do this to confuse elite EDGE defenders. Yet another fantastic pass set by Villanueva. Garrett has a tendency to head to edge and not go inside, and Villanueva exploited that all day. Now, watch Feiler anchoring with the jump set on Avery. Feiler couldn’t have punched at a better time. He engulfs Avery right away. Incredibly impressive from Feiler.

Fichtner clearly had chips and help in mind for helping Feiler and Villanueva and that’s why they ran a ton of 45-sets all game. Notice how even if Big Al does play narrow and allows the edge, he knows he’s getting help from Foster, and even if he didn’t, he was running Garrett around the arc. Great hand placement by Big Al, although it would be preferable for he and Ramon Foster not to fall over each other. Feiler just runs Avery into Conner and he had no shot right off the snap. That is a pitch-perfect pass protection rep.

Surprise appearance from Chuks! A big issue coming out of college for him was his base and how he played incredibly wide, but this is a great rep. He gets the jump rep and the footwork is super solid on the kick and then the jab forward. He stonewalls the defensive lineman right away. As for Feiler, he does play narrow, but he times his hands beautifully and gets his hands on all that surface area to run Avery straight up the arc. Feiler was really impressive today.

I love this run blocking. Feiler looks smooth and actually nimble as he pulls, even though Garrett just takes him, but Feiler still did his job regardless. So, a success. The offensive line isn’t usually pretty — it’s a unit that thrives on sloppy, gritty play. Villanueva shows great range to reach the second level and kick Collins right out of there. Villanueva made this play happen. An absolutely beautiful rep by him to spring James Conner, who continued to beast after this.

Simply put, this was a great set of performances by Villanueva and Feiler. They mixed up their sets and left Garrett and Avery guessing on their plan every time. They exploited their tendencies and did so masterfully with some great pass-blocking.