Steelers: Alejandro Villanueva is not a long-term solution at left tackle
When the Pittsburgh Steelers lost offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum to a torn ACL in their week six matchup against the Arizona Cardinals, it sent a ripple through an offensive line that had already lost a Pro Bowl caliber member of its squad.
Maurkice Pouncey‘s broken fibula during an early preseason game forced the Steelers to take drastic measures to replace their All-Pro center. This granted Cody Wallace starting duties, and kept hopes high that the injury to their 2010 first round draft pick would heal in time for his return to the lineup later in the season.
Wallace’s prior experience at center lessened the worry of starting an unseasoned player on an offensive line that desperately needed to keep their starting quarterback upright if they had any shot at the playoffs in 2015. When Beachum’s knee injury occurred, the Steelers had very little in terms of depth to turn to. The organization’s “Next Man Up” mentality called upon Alejandro Villanueva to protect franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger‘s blind side.
This was a tall order for an offensive lineman making his first start at the position since his sophomore year in college in 2008. Prior to being cut by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014, he was utilized as a defensive end and experienced some success at the position. Signed by the Steelers and placed on their practice squad, the organization attempted to mold him into a talented lineman after Mike Adams failed to live up to the expectations of a second round draft pick.
While Beachum is not perfect, his absence has been felt in the hardest of ways since Villanueva stepped into his place on the offensive line. To his credit, Villanueva has faced some fierce competition in his eight career starts. Tamba Hali, Michael Johnson, and Cliff Avril are just a few names that have given their best to get past Villanueva. While he has shown improvement since mid-season, it is not in the Steelers’ best interest to pursue him as a long-term solution at left tackle.
His near seven-foot height seems like it would be perfect when squaring off against pass rushers, but there have been often times where he was easily beaten off the line. His slow reaction time off the snap has been the most noticeable glare in his technique. He has the ability to make up for his poor timing with his large frame, but it is not able to save him in every instance. Villanueva will not lose his starting position any time soon due to lack of depth, but his difficulties must not be ignored because of it.
This isn’t to say Villanueva is a terrible lineman, because the Steelers have had some duds in recent memory. Where he excels most is when he is run blocking. DeAngelo Williams has hit many an open lane thanks to Villanueva and his ability to drive opponents out of the way and create space for the running back. His position on the depth chart is one of importance in future seasons, especially after his multiple games as a starter. However, this isn’t enough to keep him as a mainstay at the position for seasons to come.
The Steelers failed to reach a contract extension with Beachum before the beginning of the 2015 season, and that proved to work in his favor to gain a desirable sum of money. The organization has seen the difference in the offensive line without him and should pay the man what he is worth to them.
The current group of offensive linemen is arguably the best that Roethlisberger has had since his early years in the NFL, and are invaluable now as he hits the pinnacle of his career. The success of the Pittsburgh Steelers hinges on the health of their quarterback, as it was displayed when Mike Vick and Landry Jones were under center during his absence.
To make matters worse along the offensive front, Beachum is not the only lineman in need of a new contract after 2015. Ramon Foster, the Steelers’ most tenured member of the offensive line, has shored up the left guard position for many years, but could be left out when the Steelers start deciding who does and does not return to the team in 2016. This is especially important if they decide to resign Beachum to a long-term deal.
If the Steelers decided to resign neither Foster nor Beachum, it would prove disastrous for the left side of the offensive line. Relying on Villanueva to be the experienced member on his respective side of the line while a rookie or undrafted free agent was placed into the guard position, left open by Foster, would have serious repercussions on the health of their quarterback and the success of their offense.
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Alejandro Villanueva may be the inexpensive option when it comes to the future of the offensive line, but it is not the best option available to them. This is not an area where the Steelers can afford to take a chance that he will eventually develop into a serviceable lineman when they have the ability to resign an established veteran. If the health of their franchise quarterback means anything to them, they will make the right decision.