LATROBE, Pa. — Alejandro Villanueva was in mid-answer trying to put his new contract — the one that puts the former Army Ranger-turned-NFL left tackle in charge of protecting Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side for the rest of the decade — in perspective when Ramon Foster’s distinct Tennessee drawl came crashing over the top.
“Oh yes, Al!” Foster said as he walked past. “Pay the man! Get us new chairs in the O-line room.”
Villanueva smiled and shook his head at Foster’s impromptu interview bomb, though the veteran guard and elder statesman on the unit most vital to Pittsburgh’s chances at ending New England’s long run at the top of the AFC might have a point.
The seats in the group’s meeting room are getting well worn. Call it the byproduct of the kind of stability that’s a rarity in the salary cap era. The way the Steelers figure it, better to break in new furniture than new faces.
Villanueva’s deal, signed minutes before the defending AFC North champions opened training camp, means Pittsburgh’s entire front five — Villanueva at left tackle, Foster at left guard, Maurkice Pouncey at center, David DeCastro at right guard and Marcus Gilbert at right tackle — are all signed through the end of the 2018 season, with all but Foster in the fold through at least 2020.
“It’s rare, especially in this league,” DeCastro said. “Guys are all under their second contracts. It doesn’t really happen. You have to make it show.”
It certainly did last season. Pittsburgh ripped off seven straight wins after a 4-5 start to win its second division title in three years, with the line opening gaping holes for Le’Veon Bell and keeping Roethlisberger’s No. 7 jersey pristine in the process. Bell averaged 139 yards rushing during the stretch, with Roethlisberger being taken down just three times.
While Roethlisberger is serious when he says he’s working on a season-by-season basis at this point, there are certain factors could see him walk off into retirement later rather than sooner. Namely, staying upright nearly all the time behind a line among the best in the business.
“If they play as well as they’ve been playing and getting sacked 17 times in a year, that might keep me around a little longer,” he said with a smile.
Compare that to the early days of the 35-year-old Roethlisberger’s career, when he spent a considerable portion of his time picking himself up off the turf.
Roethlisberger was sacked an average of three times a game I his first decade. Over the last three years, that number has dropped below two. Part of it is Roethlisberger’s embracing of Todd Haley’s “get it and get rid of it” ethos, part of it is playing behind a group that’s grown in lockstep and part of it is the arrival of Hall of Famer Mike Munchak as the line coach in 2014.
“He brings all the pieces together,” Villanueva said. “He’s the one that can put in anybody and make him excel just like he did with me.”
Villanueva arrived in Pittsburgh a few months after Munchak, simply looking for a chance to learn following a military career that included three tours in Afghanistan. Villanueva landed a job on the practice squad that fall. Thanks in large part to Munchak’s guidance, Villanueva was starting by the end of 2015 and didn’t miss a game in 2016 as the Steelers reached the AFC championship.
His rapid rise also put the thoughtful, introspective Villanueva in a tough spot. He believed he’d earn a raise and Pittsburgh wanted to keep him around. The sticking point came on how much it was going to take. Forever wanting to blend in — not an easy thing when you’re 6-foot-9 and 320 pounds — Villanueva found the attention surrounding his status “embarrassing.”
“I didn’t want to break the bank,” he said. “I didn’t want to be compared to the top left tackles that signed a deal recently. I couldn’t conceive a situation where I would hold out to get more money. It was more if the situation was fair, I wanted to be here.”
And so he is, where his unique backstory blends right in a group that mixes sure things like Pouncey and DeCastro, both first-round picks, with Foster and Villanueva, undrafted success stories.
They are now all well compensated and in their primes, with the 31-year-old Foster the only one not in his 20s. Yet there are no concerns of complacency. Munchak’s draining individual drills and searing wit keeping things fresh. So does chemistry and a sense of accountability. Nobody wants to be the guy who gets exposed in the film room, where Munchak’s searing wit rarely misses its target.
“Whenever your guy makes the play, whenever you give up a pass rush or something, it’s just something that sticks with you for a long time,” Pouncey said.
Those moments are getting fewer and farther between. Yet nothing lasts forever. Injuries happen. Contracts end. Guys move on. The five friends who hold Roethlisberger’s health, and perhaps Pittsburgh’s season, in their collective hands understand how unique the opportunity is.
“We have to take advantage of that,” DeCastro said. “We have a small window to really take advantage of it and play good football.”