It’s not many colleges that have a decorated war hero and a professional athlete as the principal commencement speaker, but Saint Vincent College has found one person who can lay claim to being both — former Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva, who is an offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The college on Friday announced that Villanueva, a decorated Army Ranger, a National Football League Pro Bowler and noted humanitarian, will speak at commencement on May 11 at the Robert S. Carey Student Center on campus.
Villanueva, who graduated in 2010 from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point with a degree in systems engineering, plays for the Steelers, whose summer training camp is, and has been for more than 50 years, at Saint Vincent College in Unity.
Villanueva served three tours of duty in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2013 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He earned a Bronze Star Medal for valor for rescuing wounded soldiers from enemy fire.
Villanueva, a Pittsburgh resident, has been with the Steelers since 2014 and has been a starter since the 2016 season. In 2017, he became the first service academy alum to make the Pro Bowl since Navy’s Roger Staubach in 1979.
Villanueva has spoken often about the importance of his Catholic faith in reaching out to help others, and in addition to his decorated military and football careers.
Through the Steelers’ Social Justice Grant program, Villanueva gives his time to many worthy causes, including the Veterans Place of Washington Boulevard. Through Veterans Place, he has helped to deliver and furnish townhouse properties where veterans live to provide them with a boost and comforts as they battle personal struggles. He also regularly visits patients at the Pittsburgh Veterans Administration hospital.
He has donated proceeds from the royalties of the sales of his No. 78 Steelers jersey to various charities in Pittsburgh, as well as in the cities of the Steelers’ three other divisional foes, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Baltimore, benefiting school systems and area police officers and first responders.
Villanueva and his wife, Madelyn, have one son and two daughters.
Final in an offseason series breaking down the Steelers:
There were plenty of reasons for the Steelers missing the playoffs last season for the first time since 2013. The defense let the team down late in the season when the Los Angeles Chargers, Oakland Raiders and New Orleans Saints came back and scored late to secure victories. The offense didn’t help matters by turning the ball over 26 times, many at inopportune moments that contributed to the late-season collapse.
No one would be wrong when citing these facts. It’s just that the 9-6-1 season also can be boiled down one other way: Place-kicker Chris Boswell went from very good to very bad in the span of a few months.
When the Steelers were 13-3 and the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs in 2017, Boswell made 92 percent of his field-goal attempts, including four game-winners in the final seconds of games against the Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens.
Last season, Boswell converted just 65 percent of his attempts and missed several field goals in crucial spots that could have helped the Steelers win games.
To borrow an old line from Bill Cowher: “There’s a fine line between winning and losing football games.”
The Steelers found that out the hard way.
Things got so bad for Boswell that there was an in-season kicking competition and then a late-season injury that forced the Steelers to sign Matt McGrane, who kicked the game-winning field goal in the regular-season finale against the Bengals.
The kicking competition was mostly for show because the Steelers were not going to cut Boswell four months after making him one of the highest-paid kickers in the league. Boswell signed a four-year, $16.8 million deal that paid him $7.3 million in guaranteed money.
The Steelers are hoping Boswell can regain his previous form in 2019 because if he’s not on the team, he’ll still count $6.8 million against the salary cap. After taking on more than $21 million in a dead cap hit on Antonio Brown, it’s something the Steelers desperately want to avoid with Boswell, who had developed a reputation for being one of the best kickers in clutch moments in the NFL since entering the league in 2015.
There wasn’t much to celebrate for any of the special teams in 2018. Punter Jordan Berry ranked near the bottom of the league in average and net average. He was among the top 10 in the league in pinning opponents inside the 20-yard line but rarely had the ability to pin teams inside the 10.
The Steelers signed Berry last month, but they’ll likely bring in some competition this summer to push him in training camp. With 10 picks in the draft next month, it’s not out of the question for the Steelers to use one of them on a punter in the late rounds.
The punt-coverage unit didn’t help Berry, or vice versa. The Steelers finished last in the NFL in punt return yards allowed with a 14.4 yards-per-return average. They allowed three yards per return more than any other team in the NFL. Detroit was second-to-last with an 11.4 average. The inability to cover punts was especially costly when the unit allowed a 73-yard touchdown on a punt return against the Chargers that contributed to the Steelers blowing a big lead.
The Steelers traded for receiver/return specialist Ryan Switzer just before last season began to help improve the punt and kick return game. Switzer was reliable in his role for the most part, but he finished a pedestrian 13th in the league in punt-return average (8.4) and last among kick returners (20.4) with at least 22 returns. His longest kick return was 35 yards and his longest punt return was just 23 yards.
Eli Rogers missed most of last season with a knee injury, but he has punt-return experience and should provide some competition for Switzer.
There was one piece of good news for the Steelers’ special teams. They covered kicks well. They were fifth in kickoff returns allowed (20.8) and did not allow a touchdown as coach Danny Smith was among those who figured out a way to benefit from the league’s new rules on kick returns.
Smith is back for his seventh season with the Steelers. He can only hope the rest of his units follow suit next fall.
Coming into a coaching position which was once held by a man held in very high acclaim, like John Mitchell, can be difficult. But that was the exact situation Karl Dunbar saw himself in last season after Mike Tomlin decided to promote Mitchell to assistant coach, and hired Dunbar to take over as heir to the defensive line throne.
For players like Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt and Javon Hargrave, Mitchell was all they’ve known since entering the NFL. But that doesn’t mean Dunbar didn’t do the job and create a new standard for the players who fall under his tutelage.
In fact, veteran defensive tackle Stephon Tuitt was more than pleased with how Dunbar handled him and the entire Steelers’ defensive line.
“He [Dunbar] demanded me to be a great player,” Tuitt told Teresa Varley of Steelers.com. “To be confident to know you are a great player. He has a whole different style than Coach Mitchell. Coach Mitchell brought a lot of great stuff out in me. Coach Dunbar brought out some different stuff. At the end of the day he taught me skills that pertain to what I have naturally, and helped me heighten those skills. Skills like hand usage. The ability to understand protection. The ability to understand formations. My hips. Things like that. To be able to play faster from those.”
Tuitt realizes he still has a ton of things he can improve upon to become an even more dominant player.
“It can always be better, but I had a tremendous amount of growth last year and I am excited about that,” said Tuitt. “I grew in new ways that they wanted me to, new ways of me discovering things about myself to become the player I can be.”
Where can Tuitt continue to improve? How about not just getting to plays, but making plays? Sounds crazy, but Tuitt believes he is just a step away from really wrecking the opposition.
“All of the defensive linemen, we joke about me,” said Tuitt. “I get there right before the quarterback is ready to throw the ball. It’s just understanding what I need to do to get there faster. Taking the next step to get there. I am there. I am always there. I just need to get there faster.
“You can make the impact play. You stop the drive, stop the offense at the line of scrimmage. The ability to stop them. The ability to be confident in what you are doing. The ability to be faster. That is the key.”
Throughout the interview, possibly the best aspect was when Tuitt described getting a sack at the NFL level, and dominating those opposite him.
“It’s a lot of hard work trying to get a sack,” said Tuitt. “It’s the offensive line’s job not to allow you to get a sack. When you get one it’s like you are taking away from what they are getting paid to do. When you get in the quarterback’s head, and the person who is getting paid to stop you from getting there, that is an exhilarating feeling. That is like I am dominating you and I am going to keep dominating.”
Two things stuck out right away when Lions head coach Matt Patricia was evaluating new tight end Jesse James. 1. James’ toughness playing in-line. 2. James’ catch radius with his 6-foot-7 frame.
In the end, he and general manager Bob Quinn saw James as a fit in Detroit, as they attempt to revamp the tight end position. They’re both expecting James to play a big role in some crucial situations.
“He’s a young player,” Patricia said of James Tuesday at the Annual League Meetings. “Works really hard. He’s tough. I played against him for a lot of years. Love his grit, love his grind and love the way he kind of attacks the game.
“We know he can do things in the run game. The beauty about it is he’s a big target. This guy has a big catch radius. He’s long and he can catch the ball.”
Over the last three seasons, James recorded 112 receptions for 1,133 yards and eight touchdowns, but it was veteran Vance McDonald that took most of the third down and red zone snaps in Pittsburgh. James could have more of a role in that regard in Detroit.
“We’re excited about that possibility,” Patricia said.
James was also excited about the potential to be a key piece in the passing game at his introductory press conference.
“Offensively, I wasn’t used (in Pittsburgh) the way I feel I could be used here,” he said. “I feel like my ceiling here is going to be much higher than it was in the past.
“I think coach Bevell does a great job of using his personnel the best way they can be. I’m just looking forward to the process.”
James logged a career-high 423 receiving yards and averaged 14.1 yards per reception with a 76.9 percent catch rate last season. He’s also a solid pass blocker, who can help seal the edge against good pass rushers.
The Lions ranked just 25th in the NFL last season converting on third down (36.1 percent), and they were 24th in red-zone touchdown percentage, scoring a touchdown just over half the time (53.1). The Lions think James can help in those two areas.
“Another versatile guy that can block, he can catch, he can run routes,” Quinn said of James on Monday. “Another tall target. The more length at that position the bigger catch radius the bigger red-zone threat and that’s something we tried to improve on.
“Tight end was not a real strong position for us last year, as we all talked about after the season, and this is one area we wanted to improve on and Jesse was a guy we kind of honed in on early in the process.”
Jesse James has been the one steady presence at the tight end position for the Pittsburgh Steelers over the past four seasons. Originally drafted in the fifth round in 2015 to learn behind Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth, both of the elders statemen retired the following year, leaving him as the only carryover.
The Steelers brought in Ladarius Green to start, but his health limited him to just six games, leaving James to function as a full-time starter for most of the year, through much of it looking as though he were in over his head. Injuries to the next option, Vance McDonald the following year, saw him continue to function as the starter more often than not.
In spite of the fact that he took more of a back seat in 2018 with McDonald’s emergence, however, he put together his best and most complete season, and he was able to parlay that into a very nice contract for himself with the Detroit Lions.
Which leaves the Steelers with a hole to fill. While they already have their starter in McDonald, the only other options remaining on the roster are Xavier Grimble, whom the Steelers tendered as a restricted free agent, and Bucky Hodges, who was on the practice squad a year ago.
One name that could return later in the offseason is Jake McGee, who spent 2017 on the practice squad but suffered a season-ending injury in the spring of 2018 that resulting in him spending all of last season on injured reserve.
The Steelers did not offer to re-sign him as an exclusive rights free agent, but that should not be particularly shocking if he is not fully healthy. If that is actually the case, then he can be re-signed once his medicals are where the team is comfortable with.
All three of these players—Grimble, Hodges, and McGee—have shown a little something here and there, but it doesn’t exactly create the most inspiring depth chart. The latter two, for one thing, have never been on a 53-man roster before. Grimble has never served as more than a number three tight end, though he has been given niche packages and has served as the number two when others have been injured.
Can he be a full-time number two tight end, the player who would start if McDonald were injured? That’s a much different question. The Steelers do like him—there would have been no reason to tender him if not—and he can catch and block. He is well-liked and is a hard worker.
That won’t prevent them from drafting a tight end, however, something that they have been teasing to pull the trigger on for the past few draft classes already. Having lost their number two tight end, it’s more like than ever that this actually happens. But even if it does, Grimble still figures to fit into the picture. After all, he’s made it for this long.
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Joe Haden said he “can’t wait” to cover Odell Beckham Jr. twice per season after the superstar wide receiver’s trade to the AFC North-rival Cleveland Browns.
On Tuesday, TMZ Sports provided comments about the high-profile matchup from Haden, who spent the first seven years of his NFL career with the Browns.
“I’m happy for Cleveland. That’s a great football city,” Haden said. “They deserve everything. Odell, that’s one of my good friends … he’s gonna bring a lot of flash and flare there.”
When asked about the potential head-to-head clashes with OBJ, the corner replied: “I can’t wait. You gotta go against the best to be the best.”
Haden is coming off a solid second season in Pittsburgh. He tallied 63 total tackles, 12 passed defended, two interceptions and a forced fumble across 15 appearances. Pro Football Focus graded him as the league’s 38th-best corner.
The Steelers have won the AFC North three times in the past five years, but the Browns have emerged as a serious threat for that crown thanks to their rebuilt offense.
Beckham joins a pass-catching group that also features fellow wideouts Jarvis Landry and Antonio Callaway, as well as tight end David Njoku. Add in running backs Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who will join the unit after serving an eight-game suspension, and there should be no shortage of playmakers at the disposal of franchise quarterback Baker Mayfield in 2019.
It could force Haden into a lot of one-on-one coverage against OBJ, and he’s not shying away from the challenge.
With the signing of Mark Barron, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Jon Bostic knows that his starting days are probably done after he joined the team one a two-year, $4 million contract last offseason. His role had already been becoming subsumed by L.J. Fort late in the year, and he was taken off the field in the dime defense anyway.
Earlier this offseason, General Manager Kevin Colbert was pretty clear in his assessment of the Steelers’ ability to address the inside linebacker position in 2018 in the wake of Ryan Shazier’s injury, which doesn’t necessarily reflect well on Bostic.
“No, we didn’t do enough [to replace Shazier] because we’re 9-6-1. We’re not going to hide from that, and if we do, we won’t”, Colbert said. “We’re going to recognize that as we go forward for sure, but we have more than one position that we want to continue to look at and upgrade and there may be players that are available to us that we don’t need that are going to upgrade us and they make us that much better that that deficiency may be overcome by having that player”.
As we sit here today, it figures to be Vince Williams and Barron, who signed a two-year, $12 million contract after he was released by the Los Angeles Rams, as the team’s two starters along the inside. The draft can change that, and could push Bostic even further down the depth chart, perhaps even off the roster, in the worst-case scenario.
But he is willing to do whatever it takes to remain on-board in Pittsburgh. “For me, I am willing to do whatever is asked”, he told the team’s website recently in an article by Teresa Varley published yesterday. “Whatever we have to do to win I am down for it. I like to play fast, play physical. That is what it comes down to”.
Truly, Bostic does have two feathers in his cap. Most importantly, he is a very clean tackler, easily among the best on the roster. He doesn’t miss many by any means. As a run defender, he is also competent at the very least. He can diagnose the play and has the size to disengage.
Where he struggled was in coverage, where he allowed 30 of 37 targets to be caught for 331 yards and a pair of touchdowns, only netting two passes defensed for his efforts. Some of that may have been on some ill-advised schemes that put him in bad positions, but he probably knows he was not at his best in this area.
Rounding out the current group among the notable names is Tyler Matakevich, who has been almost exclusively a special teams player through his first three seasons. With Williams, Barron, Bostic, and Matakevich, they are certainly lacking some athleticism.
Adding at least one player through the draft at this position is a certainty, and adding multiple players is reasonably likely as well. The back half of the depth chart will be pushed significantly this summer to hand on.
Four days into the NFL’s free-agency period for the 2019 season, and Mark Barron remains among the players without a team.
Barron wasn’t supposed to be a free agent this year. The former Alabama All-American had two seasons left on a $45 million contract with the Los Angeles Rams.
The Rams released Barron on March 8 — one week before he was due a $3 million bonus of being on the team’s roster. Los Angeles was able to release Barron without owing him any money, since the $20 million in guarantees in his contract already had been reached, and his departure cleared $6.337 million off the team’s 2019 salary cap, according to the sports financial website overthecap.com.
But Barron’s new team could be his old team.
In discussing free agency, Rams general manager Les Snead said the team hadn’t closed the door on bringing back Barron — but at less than the $8 million ($5 million base salary and $3 million roster bonus) he would have cost Los Angeles in 2019 under his contract.
“We’re going to continue to monitor his market, right?” Snead said. “We felt like by releasing him, he would be able to get a sense of — and he deserved that, was as healthy as he’s been at the end of the year and had gotten over some of the surgeries and was playing well — what is his value today?”
Barron and Cory Littleton served as the Rams’ starting inside linebackers in the 2018 season, when Los Angeles won the NFC championship and lost 13-3 to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII.
Littleton is a restricted free agent, and the Rams put a second-round tender on him to try to make sure he’ll be back for 2019.
Los Angeles has only two inside linebackers officially on the roster right now — Travin Howard and Micah Kiser.
A seventh-round draft choice from TCU last year, Howard spent most of 2018 on the Rams’ practice squad and has never played in an NFL game.
A fifth-round draft choice from Virginia last year, Kiser played in every game in 2018, but he didn’t take a snap with the Los Angeles’ defense. Kiser was on the field for 298 special-teams plays during the regular season.
“There’s probably a little more work to do at that position through this process,” Snead said.
The Rams have signed two free agents so far — re-signing outside linebacker Dante Fowler and adding safety Eric Weddle after he’d been released by the Baltimore Ravens.
Barron had been a starting linebacker for the Rams for the past four seasons. As an outside linebacker in a 4-3 setup, Barron made 113 tackles in 2015 and 117 tackles in 2016. When Los Angeles shifted to a 3-4 base defense in 2017, Barron shifted to inside linebacker. He made 85 tackles in 14 games in 2017 and 60 tackles in 12 games in 2018, when he missed the first four games of the season with injuries.
Barron entered the NFL as a safety. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made him the seventh selection in the 2012 NFL Draft, and he had started the first 37 games of his career at strong safety when the Bucs traded him to the Rams on Oct. 28, 2014, for fourth- and sixth-round picks in the 2015 NFL Draft.
At St. Paul’s Episcopal in Mobile, Barron earned All-State recognition for the Saints’ AHSAA Class 5A championship football team in 2007. Barron also starred in track and field at St. Paul’s. He won the shot put and triple jump in 2007 and the discus, long jump, shot put and triple jump in 2008 at the AHSAA Class 5A outdoor championship meet.
At Alabama, Barron played on the Crimson Tide’s BCS national-championship teams of the 2009 and 2011 seasons. He was an All-SEC safety three times and received All-American recognition in 2011.
Bud Dupree did not have his 2019 salary restructured and will make $9.2 million for the upcoming season. There was speculation that the Steelers, who had until the start of the league’s new year to get it done, would restructure Dupree’s fifth year option while giving them added cap space in the process. The Steelers ultimately decided to not go in that direction.
Dupree, who is entering his final season under contract, was congratulated by teammate Ramon Foster after officially receiving his entire 2019 salary.
Dupree has turned into a solid, yet unspectacular starter after being Pittsburgh’s first round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. After starting the final seven games (including the postseason) of his rookie season, Dupree missed nine games in 2016 after spending the first half of the season on IR. Dupree bounced back to have a solid season in 2017, setting a career high with 6.0 sacks while also recording 12 tackles for loss. In 2018, Dupree, after switching sides with fellow outside linebacker and former first round pick T.J. Watt, collected 5.5 sacks while also recording the first interception and touchdown of his career. The Steelers picked up Dupree’s fifth year option last offseason.
Last month, during his meeting with local Pittsburgh media, Steelers’ GM Kevin Colbert was asked if he is comfortable paying Dupree that much money heading into his final year under contract.
“We’ll watch this thing as we go into free agency, the draft,” Colbert said, via Jim Wexell of 247Sports. “His number is there. We know what it is.”
Colbert was asked, as a follow-up, if Dupree’s money is guaranteed once free agency begins
“Yes. Again, we’ll continue to monitor that. Look, Bud Dupree had his best year last year, and collectively he and T.J. are pretty good. I like the change that Coach Tomlin made, putting T.J. on the left, putting Bud on the right. Does Bud still have more? Absolutely. Bud’s a starter on a winning team. Is it a playofff team? No. Does he have more to give? Absolutely. From an effort standpoint? No, it’s not a lack of effort. Let’s turn that effort into more production. Can he? Will he? We’ll see.”
Colbert also assessed the strengths and weaknesses of Pittsburgh’s defense during the 2018 season while looking forward to how he and the Steelers will look to bolster the unit moving forward.
“Defensively, again there’s a little inconsistency,” he said. “We led the league or were second in sacks, but our turnover production was near the bottom. Usually when you’re getting pressure, you’re getting more turnovers. We think that’s reflective of the group that we have. That’s not to say we don’t have guys that are capable of making plays in the secondary, but we didn’t have that type of production.
“So, again, we’re looking to maintain the pressure aspect and improve the turnover part of it. Again, another young player who stepped up in his second year was T.J. Watt. He did a nice job. Continues to grow, but we need more young playmakers, especially on the back end. The young kids that we have need to continue to get better and make more plays, and we have to continue to search and look for more playmakers.”
Following a spring practice last offseason, Dupree, who celebrated his 26th birthday earlier this month, said that he knows there’s still another level of his game he has yet to get to.
“The ceiling that I have, I’m nowhere near reaching (yet),” Dupree told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler. “I just gotta go out, keep going hard and trusting the scheme.”
Dupree was asked what his ceiling potentially looks like.
“I don’t what it looks like,” he said. “I gotta keep getting better and better. I feel myself getting better and better each rep, each day, each training session.”
Despite his banner 2018 season, Watt, who led the Steelers with 13.0 sacks last season after switching positions with Dupree, recently told Fowler that he felt like he left “a lot of plays out there” this past season. Despite his stellar year, Watt was unable to help the Steelers’ defense get out of several jams during the team’s three-game losing streak that ultimately kept them out of the postseason. Pittsburgh’s defense gave up late scores in each of the team’s final four losses of the 2018 season.
“We’re nowhere near satisfied with where we can be as a defense,” Watt said. “We’ve gotten ourselves here. We have to handle our business first. It’s just frustrating, not being able to put together as many complete games as we know we’re capable of. We understand how competitive the NFL is, and we feel we have a really good team here and we definitely feel we should have won more games than we have. But at the same time we respect the NFL, respect the process, respect everything about this game to be the best we can possibly be.”
While his 2018 campaign was not a disappointing one, it’s clear that Dupree will have to further elevate his game if he wants to improve his chances at receiving a longterm commitment from the Steelers heading into the 2019 offseason.
The Pittsburgh Steelers season is over, and the offseason is in full effect. The front office and coaching staff are preparing for the NFL Draft, but the players are instead spending time with their families and finding ways to improve for next season. Stephon Tuitt is already studying film, Ramon Foster is working out like a man possessed in Nashville, and Steven Nelson is learning about the important Pittsburgh landmarks.
Defensive lineman Javon Hargrave is similarly preparing, but he is doing so with the feedback of his coaches. The third-year veteran sat down with Missi Matthews of the Steelers media team to discuss his upcoming offseason, and he explained that part of his offseason was meeting with the coaches in exit interviews and receiving feedback. They gave him crucial information that will lead to an even better 2019 campaign.
“Just growing more,” Hargrave said. “Just growing even more as a football player, just finding ways to get better, just being able to contribute more to help the team. There are some things I did good, and some things that I did bad, I just really need to improve on next year.”
Throughout the 2018 season, Hargrave was involved fairly heavily in this Steelers defense. He started 14 of the 16 games in which he appeared and tallied 49 combined tackles with 6.5 sacks, both of which were career highs. He was effective as an interior pass rusher and attributes this success to taking advantage of increased opportunities on the defensive line. As Hargrave explained, part of his expanded role came from putting good plays on film, but there were also some injuries that opened up more playing time.
“I think I had the same role, but I just got more opportunities than I had in the past. I just took advantage of some opportunities and did big things with it…I think it’s some things I showed, just due to some injuries too. My boy (Stephon) Tuitt going down, it just opened up more things for me, and I think I just showed what I could do.”
While Hargrave was undoubtedly excited at the increased playing time in 2018 and the subsequently added opportunities in the 2019 season, he would prefer if the extra snaps did not come at the expense of his teammates. Similarly, the Steelers would also prefer if Hargrave and Tuitt were both healthy and able to serve as fierce defenders along this offensive line. Although having healthy players is only part of the equation. They also have to continuously grow with each passing day.
“We just can’t make the same mistakes twice,” Hargrave said. “That’s something that Coach Butler and Coach T preach to us. When you are a good pro, you don’t make the same mistakes twice, so some of the things that happened last year can’t happen this year that’s coming up. That’s the only way you get better in this league.”