The Pittsburgh Steelers have found themselves a truly one of a kind player in left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. After an injury to starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum in week 6, the former undrafted tight end turned tackle had a major role to fill.
A big reason fans enjoy Big Al is because of his extreme dedication to football. It shouldn't go unnoticed as he gained 100 pounds last offseason to pursue his NFL career as an offensive lineman.
Today we will take a look at some plays where Villanueva shined and one play where he struggled but ultimately improved as the season progressed.
Great run blocker, creates lane for RB
If Pittsburgh wants to run the football against an explosive Cincinnati Bengals defensive line, the offensive linemen need to do their job: block.
Notice how the pull back block from Villanueva opens up a wide open hole for running back DeAngelo Williams. Without this block Williams would have been blown up by middle linebacker Ray Maualuga.
Villanueva took the defensive linebacker out of the equation. Which sets up a 15 yard run rather than a big stop by the Maualuga.
This is just one clip that showcases a great skill of Villanueva: his incredible blocking against the run.
Pass blocking helps Big Ben throw TD's
When the team's offensive linemen do their job then the quarterback will continue to stay healthy. Ben Roethlisberger missed four games due to a left knee injury he sustained in week 3. His return was crucial for the team's success.
Big Al did a fantastic job in the passing attack when facing Pittsburgh's division rival the Cleveland Browns.
This play showcases a characteristic that Big Al has going for him: his insane size. A 6-foot 9-inch athlete going up against anyone smaller should give that athlete an advantage.
Browns outside linebacker Armonty Bryant was selected in the seventh-round of the 2013 NFL draft. His selection late in the draft did not stop him from earning 8.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. This talented player who is 6-foot 4-inches should struggle going up against Villanueva; and he most definitely did.
Bryant tries to use his power and a spin move to catch Big Al off guard. This does not work and with the other offensive linemen doing their jobs, Roethlisberger hits receiver Martavis Bryant for a 35 yard touchdown. Great awareness from Villanueva to stop the outside spin move and to basically "own" Bryant.
Gives up sack fumble
Let's give credit where credit is due; the Kansas City Chiefs have an incredible outside linebacker in Tamba Hali. This play happened in a week seven matchup just one week after Villanueva replaced injured left tackle Kelvin Beachum.
You would expect a player that still needs to learn the position to struggle in the early games he is put into, and that is exactly what happened when going up against a six-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker.
Hali seamlessly gets past Villanueva after he failed to get off the line quick enough. He then uses his power to get past him as he hits quarterback Landry Jones for a strip sack recovered by the Chiefs.
This would end up being one of the worst plays by the "rookie" offensive lineman. He has grown so much since his first game against the Arizona Cardinals. I expect him to continue to grow and succeed at a high level.
Alejandro Villanueva showed stability in his first year for the Steelers offense. He will have a chance to become the team's starting left tackle as he battles newly acquired LT Ryan Harris from this year's Super Bowl winning Denver Broncos.
Villanueva could be a player which Pittsburgh can rely on for years to come. He will have to prove his impressive season in 2015 was no fluke by following up with increased consistency in the coming seasons, but based on his performance thus far, it is not a long shot for him to accomplish.
The 2015 NFL season began with one of the major contract talking points for Pittsburgh being what the team should do with starting left tackle Kelvin Beachum whom had become a model of consistency at the position. After the Jacksonville Jaguars signed Beachum many fans stayed cool and calm knowing Big Al is ready to help out on the offensive line. The Steelers responded to Beachum's departure wit confidence in Villanueva when they only made one inexpensive free agent acquisition at tackle in veteran Ryan Harris.
The ultimate battle will go down this training camp, who will win the starting left tackle position for the 2016 NFL season?