UNITY TWP., Pa. — Better than almost anyone you can think of, Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva understands death.
As a captain in the U.S. Army Rangers, Villanueva experienced the loss of fellow servicemen during tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq.
During the firefight in Kandahar, Afghanistan, that later earned him a Bronze star, Villanueva carried wounded and dying soldiers to help under enemy fire.
So while the rest of Steelers training camp slammed to a halt following Sunday’s sudden death of wide receivers coach Darryl Drake, Villanueva is trying to keep things in perspective.
“You can’t compare the two,” Villanueva said while speaking to reports on Wednesday. “I think in the Army, you prepare for these things to happen. You expect for these things to happen. They definitely unity the group when they do happen — maybe not for the right reasons — but they definitely have an impact on the morale of the unit.”
“Sometimes, it’s vengeful toward the responsible culprits. In this case, it was just one person. The kids that died in battle were usually 18, 19 years old. So it’s a little bit more difficult to swallow when you think of their kids that they’re never going to meet. It’s part of the culture. It’s part of the Army culture to deal with death.”
Villanueva said that his firsthand experience with death in the Army gives him a perspective that some of his teammates — particularly those that have not dealt with death in their lives previously — might not have.
“I think once you get over the deployments and can put it all into the rear-view mirror, you do learn some very valuable lessons about death,” Villanueva said. “It can make you appreciate life. Death is part of life. You cannot have life without death. It’s something that individually, everybody has to deal with. Because death comes to all of us.”
But the big tackle, for whom protection has now been a career staple in two very different ways, also said that he can only do so much when it comes to helping his teammates through the grieving process.
“Religion helps some,” he said. “Obviously, we’re here at St. Vincent. You know I’m Catholic, so for me, it might be a little bit easier to deal with than for some other people that might be looking for questions and answers.
“I don’t want to put pressure and I don’t want to put my beliefs and my narratives on my teammates on how to deal with death. People have their own experiences. From Afghanistan and Iraq, in war, the life of a soldier is sometimes honored a lot more and sometimes glorified when you do that. It’s a very dangerous discussion to compare the two.”
The one person that can help lead the Steelers though this difficult time, in Villanueva’s opinion, is head coach Mike Tomlin. Tomlin’s leadership ability has come into question after a drama-filled 2018 season. But according to Villanueva, he’s struck the proper tone to keep his team moving forward in spite of the personal and professional loss.
“I think Coach Tomlin has done a very good of job of understanding what would Coach Drake want from all of us right now at this moment,” Villanueva said. “He would not want us to dwell on this. He definitely would want us to have a good sense of humor about this. For us, it’s about starting to realize that we have a season to play. That we have to get focused. The playmakers have to make plays. It is a great opportunity to honor his life and his legacy my making those plays, by staying focused and playing our best football.”
JuJu Smith-Schuster Asks Fans to Give him Space
JuJu Smith-Schuster is experiencing the negative side effect of living so much of his personal life in the public eye. The Steelers receiver, who is looking for a new NFL contract, took to Instagram to ask fans to leave him alone.
This stems from allegations that fans are showing up to his family home in California while he is there. Obviously, fans have no right to show up unwelcome anywhere to stalk an an athlete or celebrity, but this is just another example of the polarization of Smith-Schuster’s career. While he’s received much criticism, most notably this past season, for his sometimes over-the-top behavior and seemingly prioritizing his brand at all times, he also has many avid supporters who would stop at nothing to defend one of their favorite players.
Smith-Schuster is set to be a free agent in March for the first time in his professional career. If the Steelers should try to bring back the receiver has become a hot debate among Pittsburgh fans, so much so Smith-Schuster himself addressed the situation during a live Twitch sessions with fans.
Even Smith-Schuster’s play on the field is often up for debate. He totaled 97 receptions, but for only 831 yards with an average of just 8.6 yards per catch, which is significantly lower than his average from past seasons, including 15.8 his rookie year and 13.1 in 2019.
When it comes to JuJu Smith-Schuster, it’s always best to just stay tuned.
Steelers’ Vance McDonald Reflects on Stiff Arm Moment, Relationship with Ben Roethlisberger
Steelers tight end Vance McDonald spoke to the media after officially announcing his retirement from the NFL. McDonald responded to a question about the play he’s most synonymous with by saying he embraces the famous stiff arm moment. He also detailed his interaction with Ben Roethlisberger when he told his quarterback he was planning to retire.
Steelers TE Kevin Rader Aced Week 17 Audition, More Coming in 2021?
The Steelers have an opening in their tight ends room, as four-year starter Vance McDonald retired on Friday.
That leaves Eric Ebron as the team’s projected starter for 2021, and that won’t be a big change, as Ebron out-snapped McDonald and started nine games to McDonald’s 12. Without another veteran option, it’s likely the Steelers will use fewer two-tight end sets, but the issue of backups will need to be addressed.
Michigan product and former fifth-round pick Zach Gentry has yet to be a factor through two seasons and missed most of 2020 with an injury, but as he’s under contract and the team is facing a salary cup crunch, he seems likely to hold onto that job.
The Steelers have options for a third tight end, securing the services of Dax Raymond and Charles Jones on reserve/future contracts for the 2021 season on Thursday. But the man that seems most likely to step up into that role is third-year pro Kevin Rader.
Rader, a Pine-Richland and Youngstown State alum spent his second season with the Steelers in 2020, but got his first taste of action in Week 17 at Cleveland with the Steelers choosing to rest starters.
He made the most of the opportunity, particularly on special teams, where he played in nearly half of the team’s snaps, made three tackles and drew praise from head coach Mike Tomlin.
“Guys like Kevin Rader had an opportunity to step up and play,” Tomlin said. “I think he had three tackles on kickoff. For an offensive player to have that type of contribution in net, in a coverage unit I think was impressive. That’s good for him. That’s good for us as we move forward.”
Rader is also on a reserve/future contract, with no guaranteed money for 2021, but if he can continue to show the ability to contribute on special teams and help as a blocker, where McDonald excelled and Ebron does not, it seems that he can certainly carve himself out a role in Pittsburgh in 2021.