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Alejandro Villanueva‘s growth key to Steelers’ offensive line dominance

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The Steelers no longer have a glaring weakness on their offensive line, and ‘Big Al’ is one of the main reasons why.

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NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If that chain were the Steelers offensive line, I think most would agree the weakest link would be left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. That wouldn’t necessarily be a knock on ‘Big Al’ because the unit boasts two All-Pro’s in center Markice Pouncey and right guard David Decastro. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert is widely considered at least a Pro Bowl-quality player. Left guard Ramon Foster is an 8-year veteran, playing the best football of his career. So being the “worst” of that bunch is nothing to be ashamed of.

Still, it was clear throughout much of the early part of this season, that Villanueva had not progressed as well as most believed or hoped he would. Big Al had surrendered five sacks in the first six games of the season. His run blocking was inconsistent as well.

But with the Steelers now entering their 19th game of the season, Villanueva has turned things around. Pro Football Focus (PFF) ran an article on the Steelers’ O-line earlier this week, highlighting Big Al’s dramatic improvement. You can read it here.

With that in mind, I wanted to look at Villanueva’s play from the first half of the season, as compared to more recently. With the Patriots up next in the AFC Championship Game, it seems appropriate to look at the Steelers’ contest vs. New England in Week 7. I would then watch the Divisional Round Playoff game vs. the Chiefs and note the difference in the play of Big Al.

The improvement is apparent on almost every snap. Obviously I can’t show each difference, so I chose two plays (one run, one pass) from each respective game, where Villanueva was tasked with the same assignment, to demonstrate how he has grown.

OK, let’s get to the Week 7 game vs. the Patriots:

We see Villanueva attempt a cut-block on the Patriots defensive tackle Malcom Brown. To me, he looks hesitant and mechanical. It’s almost like you can see Villanueva thinking. Brown easily steps out of the way and makes a play on Bell.

The next play shows Villanueva in pass protection:

Here, Villanueva is so concerned with not getting beat around the edge that he opens up “the gate.” Patriots defensive end Jabal Sheard sees this and promptly beats him to the inside. The fact that Landry Jones was able to get rid of the ball means nothing in our evaluation. Villanueva displayed poor technique, allowing inside pressure.

We see tentativeness and uncertainty in Villy’s movements. He seemed unsure of himself. Again, Villanueva appeared to be processing and planning, rather than playing.

Now, let’s look at Big Al against the Chiefs:

See how Villanueva shoots through on this cut block. Granted, this one is slightly easier than the previous one vs the Patriots because of the alignment of the Chiefs DL Chris Jones. It’s not by much, though, and the execution demonstrates significantly more conviction vs. the first play where it looked like Big Al simply fell down.

Lastly, let’s look at Villanueva in pass protection vs the Chiefs:

Just to be clear, that’s not just anybody lined up wide of the tight end, but it’s Justin Houston, one of the premier pass-rushers in the NFL. If there were any player that Villy might be concerned would beat him around the edge, it would be Houston. Note how Villanueva contacts Houston’s shoulder pads and then knocks his hands down. In doing so, Big Al takes Houston straight to the ground. It’s a move that Tyron Smith of the Cowboys has perfected. Seeing Villanueva add this to his arsenal is impressive.

To repeat, we’re seeing what seems to be two almost completely different players between Week 7 and now. It wasn’t simply a matter of seeing better technique, we saw a player that was more confident, more aggressive and more physical. I hope the plays I’ve shown here reflect that.

The Steelers’ OL has grown as a unit. They’re playing their best football of the season right now. Most “experts” rank them among the top-3 offensive lines in the league, if not higher. They’re easily the best of the four remaining teams in the playoffs. One big reason is the strength of their weakest link.