PITTSBURGH -- Mike Tomlin has said that he first spotted his left tackle, Alejandro Villanueva, during the playing of the National Anthem before a preseason game in 2014.
Villanueva was with the Philadelphia Eagles, but was cut and signed by the Steelers, who moved him to the offensive line and taught him the job on the practice squad.
On Sunday, Villanueva played every snap of his 17th start of the 2016 season.
He obviously played well. His team won, his quarterback was sacked only one time and his running back set a team post-season rushing record.
After the game, Villanueva emerged from the tunnel leading to the locker room, saw his coach, and said, "Hey, there's the cheerleader!" Tomlin laughed and said, "That's right, I was cheering my (butt) off."
Villanueva had some interesting comments about the moment, and about Tomlin.
Q: Has the cheerleader thing become a rallying cry?
AV: "A hundred percent. (Pause) I think that's something that makes him a really good coach. Thirty-one teams didn't give me a chance to play in the NFL. I've been denied from the Bears, the Bengals, the Eagles. I don't think there's any player who's ever failed three times at a rookie minicamp tryout and is still playing in the NFL. So for me, Coach Tomlin means a lot. He gave me an opportunity to learn a position in a year on the practice squad. He didn't cut me when there were team needs. He invested in me and he believed in me and that's the only thing I needed to go on with my career. So for me, his leadership, his mentorship, his ability to get the best out of me has meant the world to me and has allowed me to feed my family and has hopefully helped the team be a better team. He's a great coach. He's a great leader. Obviously when those comments were heard in the locker room, they affected me personally because I have so much admiration and I want to defend my coach at all costs."
Q: Do others feel the same way?
AV: "I think the whole team feels the same way. I think everybody loves Coach Tomlin. He's got a personal relationship with everybody. I think if you ask 32 teams in the NFL, less than half will be able to tell you that they've had a conversation with their head coach, and I think every single person in this locker room has a conversation with Coach Tomlin every single day. And that's not something I take for granted, because I've been in other organizations where that doesn't happen. I think I'm very fortunate and I think this team is very, very fortunate to have Coach Tomlin as the head coach."
Q: Not that you needed a rallying cry, considering the inherent motivation at playoff time, but has it helped unify?
AV: "He keeps the team focused regardless of the circumstance. It doesn't matter if it's media. It doesn't matter. He's done a really good job of forcing everybody to stay focused. This stuff happens on every single team. News breaks out every single year with teams all around the NFL, and that usually distracts locker rooms, divides the locker room. I think everybody's really unified on this team because he's so open about everything. He discusses everything in a public forum. His coaching style is extremely effective and I think it truly helps bring the best out of this team every single week."
Q: He's said that camaraderie doesn't necessarily create winning, but that winning creates camaraderie. Agree?
AV: "There's a mixture of both. He really wants to have us play for each other and that's what he's done this whole season. Teams like that are very tough to beat. Teams that play for each other are usually going to get the best out of the players. You could put in a list a number of things he does on a daily basis to get this team ready to go every single week. Little things that mean big things. Every single thing he says has a meaning and purpose. Everything is very calculated. There's not a thing he would tell a player that doesn't have a purpose. He's not a guy that just wants to talk. He's always very focused on coaching 53 players personally, so that's a very tough challenge and I think he does that very well. Regardless of whether we have a position coach, I have a personal relationship with Coach Tomlin and I have expectations that I owe him, and he lets me know those things every single week."
Q: I took the camaraderie comment as having a built-in humility to it. He doesn't take credit for anything, does he?
AV: "Never does. No, he never does. He's a great leader. He's responsible for everything the team does or fails to do. Every single win we owe it to him. Every single loss he's always taking credit for."