By: Michael Stiffler
Every year, each team in the NFL deals with their own collection of injuries. Some teams get lucky and some are left licking their wounds hoping the next man up can step up to the challenge. The Pittsburgh Steelers were no strangers to this last season losing Ben Roethlisberger, Stephon Tuitt, and Sean Davis (sometimes overlooked thanks to Minkah Fitzpatrick) all for the season.
Depending on the player, some leave a bigger void than others. I want to dive into two Steelers who are going to be crucial to the success of the 2020 season, one on each side of the ball.
*Disclaimer, I am excluding the quarterback position due to the obvious impact.*
Villanueva may not be the best offensive lineman on the Steelers, but he does play the most important position out of the five. We can argue that each offensive lineman is the most important player since they will be the ones tasked with keeping defenders off Roethlisberger’s newly repaired right elbow, but Villanueva is on his own island at left tackle. He gets the opportunity week in and week out to battle each team’s top pass rusher from attacking Roethlisberger’s blindside.
Villanueva is the model of consistency, four straight seasons starting all 16 games. He occasionally gives up a sack here and there but don’t get it twisted, Villanueva is as solid a left tackle as it comes. Just as a reminder, Villanueva played defensive end, left tackle, and wide receiver while in college. The Philadelphia Eagles signed him as a defensive end in 2014 before he settled as a tackle with the Steelers in 2015. The guy still has room to get better.
Another reason Villanueva is so crucial, the Steelers have quite a fun game of musical chairs to play with who will start at left guard and right tackle this year. Stefan Wisniekwski, Kevin Dotson and Matt Feiler will go into camp to see who earns the starting spot at guard, while Feiler, Zach Banner, and Chukwuma Okorafor battle for the right tackle position. Now if you are wondering who is the backup left tackle, that honor is for Okorafor who has started 0 NFL games at left tackle (he did start 1 game in 2019 at right tackle against the Los Angeles Rams). Now you can see the problem that could occur if Villanueva happened to get injured this year. This could cause a lot of moving parts impacting the chemistry the offensive line has and might throw players into some uncomfortable territory.
Fingers crossed for another 16 games from Big Al.
This one should come as no surprise to those fans who watched the Steelers defense post-Ryan Shazier injury. When watching those defenses, there was always something missing at inside linebacker. They lacked speed, playmaking, and versatility. They always seemed to be at a disadvantage no matter what defense they put out there. Even Steelers management took notice and made the most non-Steelers move in recent history, trading into the top 10 to select Bush.
I am not saying Bush is Shazier 2.0, honestly I disliked the pick initially, but he showed flashes of playmaking ability last year. How many linebackers can run 4.44 40’s? How many times do you see a linebacker have his back turned to the ball and make an interception falling to the ground after the receiver bobbled it? Special ones, that’s who. If you don’t know the play I am talking about, the play happened during the first Baltimore Ravens game from last year. These are the types of plays that separate good from great, and he had his fair share of great plays last year.
Every rookie struggles and hits the dreaded “rookie wall”. Their bodies are being constantly broken down since they leave campus with the combine, pro days, mini-camp, OTA’s, and training camp. The physicality and speed of the game are something that take months if not years to adjust to as an NFL player. Learning more complex schemes and terminology, adjusting the lifestyle; it’s a huge task for a first year player.
Bush is now through the hard part. He is able to get a real off-season in. He has the ability to fine tune his game and go back and work on his first year struggles. He can now become fully comfortable in the Keith Butler defense and lead this defensive group like the Steelers intended.
Without Bush, that leaves the Steelers with big question marks. Is it Ulysses Gilbert, a free agent acquisition, a mid-season trade? I think Steeler Nation would rather not go down that road. Let’s hope for full health and another season of big time plays from Bush.
Who do you think is essential to the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers? Drop a comment below.