With the Pittsburgh Steelers coming off their bye week and there soon being little to talk about in the interim outside of returning players, now would be as good a time as any to take a look back on what’s transpired this season and give out some mid-year player evaluations.
The team has had a rocky but ultimately successful season to date, coming out of the first eight games with a 6-2 record, tied for the best in the AFC along with the Patriots and the Chiefs, the latter of whom they have already beaten.
The offense has not lived up to its billing for the most part this year, though the running game has had its moments. Defensively, the sacks have come, and the secondary has improved, but there will always be things to work on.
Player: Alejandro Villanueva, LT
Alejandro Villanueva is now in his third season in the league—or more accurately his third on a 53-man roster. This is the first time in his career in which he has been able to enter the season as an uncontested starter. But that didn’t really do much good with respect to preventing him from getting off to a slow start.
The former undrafted player was an exclusive rights free agent this offseason, but due to the importance of his role with the team, the front office was willing to work out a long-term deal with him, signing him to a modest-for-a-starting-left-tackle four-year contract.
By the end of last season, into a deep playoff run, the former Army Ranger was looking like one of the top tackles in football, but he hasn’t gotten back up to that level just yet. He is playing at a better level, but he still lacks consistency, in my view.
He and most of the rest of the offense would do well to use this bye week to figure out how to get more out of themselves for the second half of the season, because most of them have failed to reach their potential, short of perhaps David DeCastro, Antonio Brown, and JuJu Smith-Schuster.
Villanueva has a truly impressive skill set for the left tackle position. While his height is both an advantage and a disadvantage, his combined athleticism and strength make it hard to go through or around him if he is on his fundamentals.
He also has a vicious chop that has sent many pass-rushers spilling to the ground in humiliating fashion, something that he has harnessed since he first came in off the bench for Kelvin Beachum. When he is feeling comfortable and playing aggressive, he can dominate.
The problem is that just hasn’t happened all too often, or all too consistently, so far this year. That doesn’t mean it won’t come in the second half of the year, as it did in 2016. But let’s just hope that it does. He’s been playing better overall in recent weeks.