Kevin Gorman: Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva gets creative for Myles Garrett
Alejandro Villanueva hardly had time to recover from four quarters against Aaron Donald when the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Pro Bowl left tackle started preparing for Myles Garrett.
Going from playing the two-time NFL defensive player of the year to the league’s sacks leader is a monster assignment in itself, so doing it in a four-day span almost seems unfair. Yet that’s Villanueva’s task when the Steelers play the Browns on Thursday night at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland.
For Big Al, that’s his favorite part of the job description.
“Guys like Aaron Donald and Myles Garrett, they make the game fun because they are very, very difficult to block,” Villanueva said. “It makes you get creative. It makes you reach into the bag of tricks because, sometimes, what you do on a usual basis doesn’t work against them.”
If Villanueva appears unfazed, it’s because he can draw from both his background in the U.S. Army and his first season with the Steelers. With the Army Rangers, he would run 15 miles carrying a backpack a third of his body weight. Then he’d have to do it again the next day, when he was still tired and sore.
“Unpredictability,” Villanueva said, “is not something that fazes me.”
Neither does having to go against Donald and Garrett back-to-back on such short rest. In his first NFL action in 2015, Villanueva faced Calais Campbell, Dwight Freeney and LaMarr Woodley of the Arizona Cardinals. His next game was against the Kansas City Chiefs, with Tamba Hali, Dee Ford and Justin Houston.
“You cannot get wrapped around so much who you’re playing against,” Villanueva said, “because every single player in the NFL is very talented.”
As a pass rusher, however, Garrett is on another level. The No. 1 overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft, Garrett has 10 sacks, 15 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles this season, and 30 ½ sacks and 62 quarterback hits in 36 career games. Where Donald is a 6-foot, 285-pound defensive tackle who slides up and down the line, Garrett is a 6-4, 272-pound edge rusher who can flip from right end to left. Both are physical specimen, but Garrett has a longer reach and frame.
“Myles Garrett is sculpted in the Greek times; they took the statue and they made it into a human. He’s incredibly built and very fast, smart — but Aaron Donald is the same way,” Villanueva said. “I think they both play very similar: If you try to go physical against them, they finesse you; if you try to finesse them, they’re going to out-physical you. It’s always a very interesting chess match to play against those guys.
“Playing a physical tackle in the NFL is a lot like when I was in the Army and you’re jumping out of planes — there’s very little upside. If you do a great, phenomenal job, you won’t hear your name and you move on to the next one. If you make just one mistake, it seems like the absolute worst.”
Garrett has been dominant in three games against the Steelers (he missed the 2017 opener with a high-ankle sprain), with four sacks, four quarterback hits, three tackles for losses and three forced fumbles. Those are better numbers than he has against the Baltimore Ravens or Cincinnati Bengals.
Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner called Garrett “a difference maker” who is “spectacular off the edge,” no matter which side he’s lined up against.
“I mean, you know he’s generally going to be on the outside, and he’s going to come hunt the quarterback,” Fichtner said, “and that’s what he does so well.”
Villanueva is aware of Garrett’s affinity for jumping the snap count, unafraid of the risk of getting penalized, and his “incredible bend” that allows him to remain upright where other pass rushers would fall to the ground. That prevents the 6-9, 320-pound Villanueva from using his reach to lock Garrett out.
“Everything has to come on time or he’s going to be at the quarterback pretty quickly,” Villanueva said. “He has a repertoire of moves, so he’s not always doing the same thing and he’s moving around everywhere. He’s just a very good pass rusher. He’s got physical tools that nobody else has in the NFL, and he knows how to use them.”
It makes you wonder if Villanueva would prefer to pack a parachute than play against Garrett and the Browns. But it’s just the opposite. Villanueva loves nothing more than a challenge, and knows he’s not alone on the Steelers’ front five.
“Myles Garrett is the best pass rusher in the NFL. He’s for sure that. If you’re playing a game, you don’t want to face Myles Garrett. That’s something every single tackle in the NFL will tell you,” Villanueva said. “He’s a mismatch in terms of length, speed and that combination is not replicated in any other player. But it’s a team sport. That’s what I always have to count on.”
Don’t forget the bag of tricks. Unpredictably is not something that fazes Big Al. It’s part of the job description.
Villanueva would prefer not to hear his name and move on to the next one.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .