Steelers Job For Villanueva's Taking

The Steelers' big man is in line to take the next step of his professional journey.

The Carolina Panthers tonight mark the end of a long preseason for the shellshocked Pittsburgh Steelers, who've lost two placekickers, a center and a backup quarterback to injury, a blossoming superstar of a wide receiver to four failed drug tests, undergone fan blowback for signing Michael Vick, and also traded a couple of next year's draft picks to patch holes with what could turn out to be one-year rentals.

What can possibly happen next in this wicked preseason?

Well, there was actually some good news this week when a procedural move to put one backup offensive tackle out of action for at least six weeks meant that another backup tackle -- war hero Alejandro Villanueva -- will realize his dream of making an NFL roster.

Villaneuva was chewing on a sandwhich Tuesday morning when told that congratulations were in order, and he almost choked.

"No," he said with a mouth full of food. "No, this business is ruthless."

Villanueva walked away for a moment to re-set. He picked back up with "this business is ruthless."

"It really is," he said. "There are so many possible scenarios. There's no single path to get to a team. The business side of things is always looking to get better players, so you're not really comparing yourself against everyone in the locker room. You kind of compare yourself to everybody in the league.

"It's too early to say. Until I can spend a full season in here, I'm not going to say it."

So, no, the big man who looks like he could develop into the next Tony Boselli once he learns the position said he won't even accept congratulations when he inevitably passes the final Steelers cuts on Saturday and travels with the team next Wednesday afternoon to New England.

"No, because that just means you've made that you made that first week," he said. "Next week they can just find somebody else better."

Humility is expected of an Army Ranger with more battlefield medals than football trophies, and that hunger for professional survival befits what he calls "an undrafted guy with no pedigree" out of Army.

Where he used to play wide receiver.

But he's learned how to play tackle, which obviously is a better fit for the 6-9, 330-pounder.

At times this summer he's looked stellar. At other times he's looked clueless. But he kept grinding, and dreaming, that this would be the year he finally makes an NFL roster.

But the more he improves, the bigger the dream. He won't take congratulations today, or next week, or even at the end of the season. None of it guarantees survival in this field.

What about a Pro Bowl?

"If it's something like that, yeah," he said. "For an undrafted guy to feel established, I guess the Pro Bowl is something you would need. Obviously as an undrafted guy with no pedigree from a big university, the road is pretty hard, especially the way some teams look at you."

Three other NFL teams looked at Villanueva as a tight end or defensive lineman. The Steelers gave him the opportunity to learn from one of the best offensive line coaches in the business, Mike Munchak, and they gave him all of last season on the practice squad, all of this past spring, and all of training camp to learn the tackle position. The 26-year-old Villanueva rose to the level of top backup with Adams on the PUP list, and with Adams being placed on Reserve/PUP to start the season Villanueva becomes a roster lock who no doubt will be active on game days.

How much has he improved?

"That's a tough question," he said before shedding ligh on how difficult this latest mission has been.

"I think in terms of learning the plays and the mental aspect of things, it was a lot slower than I thought it was going to be. I thought I was going to be able to pick it up a lot faster. But I was a little bit humbled by the amount of information you have to assimilate and process, because a lot of times you just could not learn it until you've gone through it five or six times. And due to the size of the playbook, a lot of times you might only get a play to your side once a week, and then you'll forget it because you're going against a different front. So the different combinations of plays versus defenses almost seem endless to a guy like me. I thought I was going to come in, pick up the playbook in OTAs and just perform in training camp, but I still find out a lot of looks that I haven't seen. I still find a lot of plays that I don't feel comfortable with, and so that delays my technique a little bit in terms of technique development. Once I learn the playbook, once I know exactly what I'm doing, then I can focus on performing that play to the best of my ability.

"I think I've improved in a lot of areas, and not just learning the playbook and developing some technique, but I feel there's a lot of room for growth. I'm still kind of excited about that just to see how far I can go."

Who isn't excited? And with the big man taking the next step in this potentially exciting evolution, it's been an unexpected blast of good news.

Just don't congratulate Villanueva for it.

He's too busy grinding.

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