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Steelers OL Alejandro Villanueva On Life, Death, Football

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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.”

Steelers

Steelers Sign another from XFL, DE/LB Dewayne Hendrix

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The Steelers have signed former Pitt defensive end Dewayne Hendrix, Steelers Now has confirmed. The news of Hendrix’s signing was first reported by NFL Draft Diamonds.

Hendrix, 24, was most recently with the St. Louis Battlehawks of the XFL. He also spent time on the practice squad of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins last season.

In five games with St. Louis, Hendrix made four tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack and one quarterback hurry.

A two-year starter at Pitt after transferring from Tennessee, Hendrix finished his Panthers career with 50 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. He played in 25 games total for Pitt from 2016-18 and made 24 starts.

Hendrix missed the 2016 season with a season-ending ankle injury suffered on the first series of the game. He sat out 2015 at Pitt after playing in seven games with the Volunteers as a true freshman.

At 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, Hendrix played defensive end at Pitt, but could be more suited to be an outside linebacker in the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme. He’s essentially the same height and weight as starting outside linebacker Bud Dupree.

Hendrix is the fifth XFL alum the Steelers have signed, joining long snapper and linebacker Christian Kuntz, defensive end Cavon Walker, tackle Jarron Jones and safety Tyree Kinnel.

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Analysis

What to Expect from a 38-Year-Old Starting Quarterback

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On March 2nd, Ben Roethlisberger turned 38. When the NFL season starts in September, Ben will be 38 years old and entering his 17th year as the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even at this age, Ben is reaching rarefied air. Since 1969, there have been only 54 quarterbacks that played into their age 38 season. Of those 54, 46 of them started a game and just 22 finished the season with starts in more than half the games that season.

Discounting the fact that Roethlisberger is recovering from elbow surgery, what can we expect from a 38-year-old quarterback? Surprisingly, the answer is plenty.

From 1969-1999 quarterbacks playing in their age 38 season on average threw for 2,665 yards with 15 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. Not gaudy numbers, but some of that has to do with the eras in which these quarterbacks played. Even more encouraging, they had a 63% winning percentage.

From 1969-1999, five Hall of Fame quarterbacks played to age 38. Some experienced more success than others.

In 1978 Fran Tarkenton threw for 25 touchdowns and over 3,400 yards but tossed up 32 interceptions and went 8-7-1 on the season. In 1983, Ken Stabler went 7-7 at age 38, but threw 18 interceptions against only 9 touchdowns and fewer than 2,000 yards. Warren Moon went 9-6 in 1994, but had more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (18). In 1999, Dan Marino went 5-6 at age 38, throwing 12 touchdowns against 17 interceptions.

On the positive side, all-time great Joe Montana had 3,283 yards through the air and a 2:1 TD to INT ratio (18-9) with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1994 and John Elway won a Super Bowl in his age 38 season. Elway may have been relying on Terrell Davis at that time, but still put up nearly 3,000 yards along with 22 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions.

As sports science and training regimes have improved, it’s become more commonplace to find quarterbacks 38 and older still having success, or even dominating in the league.

In 2007, Brett Favre at 38 threw for over 4,000 yards and added 28 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions as the Packers went 13-3. Kurt Warner a year after his Super Bowl loss to the Steelers still had plenty in the tank at 38. The veteran quarterback started 15 games, going 10-5 with 3,753 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 picks. Even journeyman Josh McCown put up 18 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions and 2,900 yards in his age 38 season.

As far as Roethlisberger’s direct contemporaries, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees all put together superlative performances at age 38.

Peyton Manning, 4,727 yards, 39 TD, 15 INT (12-4)
Tom Brady, 4,770 yards, 36 TD, 7 INT (12-4)
Drew Brees, 4,334 yards, 23 TD, 8 INT (11-5)

However, depending on how you view Roethlisberger, a closer proxy may be former Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers. Rivers’ age 38 season was statistically one of his worst as the team went 5-11. Rivers threw for 4,600 yards but threw nearly as many interceptions (20) as touchdowns (23).

What will Roethlisberger be like when he comes back? If history offers any clues, there’s no reason to think he can’t be a highly effective player on his return. Quarterbacks at his level in this era– i.e. future Hall of Famers–have historically had success at age 38 and beyond.

It’s impossible to predict when a player will “lose it”. But as long as his elbow is healed and there’s not a significant loss of arm strength, there’s no reason to think that Roethlisberger won’t be able to return to his per-injury, high-level of play.

NFL Quarterbacks at age 38, >7 starts, since 2000

PlayerYearAgeTmGGSCmpAttCmp%YdsTDIntPick6TD%Int%RateSkYdsSk%Y/AAY/AANY/AY/GWLT4QCGWD
Vinny Testaverde200138NYJ161626044158.962752151413.43.1775.3181223.90%6.245.495.01172106055
Rich Gannon200338OAK7712522555.561274642.71.7873.517907.00%5.665.44.6418225012
Brad Johnson200638MIN151427043961.5275091532.13.4272292006.20%6.265.144.39183.368023
Brett Favre200738GNB161635653566.544155281515.22.895.715932.70%7.777.557.18259.7133024
Jeff Garcia200838TAM121124437664.89271212613.21.690.2231005.80%7.217.136.4722665013
Kurt Warner200938ARI151533951366.083753261425.12.7393.2241724.50%7.327.16.46250.2105012
Kerry Collins201038TEN10716027857.551823148152.8882.213914.50%6.566.275.68182.325011
Jon Kitna201038DAL10920931865.7223651612353.7788.9211006.20%7.446.756.03236.545012
Peyton Manning201438DEN161639559766.164727391516.52.51101.5171182.80%7.928.097.68295.4124011
Tom Brady201538NWE161640262464.42477036725.81.12102.2382255.70%7.648.297.48298.1124022
Carson Palmer201738ARI7716426761.4219789713.42.6284.4221507.60%7.416.95.86282.634022
Josh McCown201738NYJ131326739767.2529261894.52.2794.5392648.90%7.377.266225.158012
Drew Brees201738NOR161638653672.01433423814.31.49103.9201453.60%8.098.277.71270.9115022
Philip Rivers201938LAC161639059165.994615232013.93.3888.5342225.40%7.817.066.32288.4511012

All data from Pro Football Reference

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Steelers

What Eric Ebron Can Bring to the Steelers

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When the Steelers signed free agent tight end Eric Ebron to a two-year, $12 million dollar deal, these kinds of performances probably helped convince them to make the offer.

The 6-foot-4, 253-pound tight end shows fantastic body control, great feet, and a penchant for making combat catches over multiple defenders. What’s not to like?

Over the past two seasons, the former 1st round pick of the Detroit Lions is 8th in receptions (97) and yards (1125) and first in touchdowns (17) amongst all tight ends.

Now the bad news. The kind of things you don’t see in highlight videos.

Ebron is last in the NFL over the last two seasons in catch percentage at just 59.9% (50 receptions minimum). That’s 10 points lower than Steelers starter Vance McDonald over the same time period. In 2019 with the Colts, Ebron took a major step back–which can be somewhat excused with Andrew Luck’s retirement–starting only two games. Ebron also had his receptions and yards halved from 2018, 66 to 31 and 750 to 375.

Obviously the Steelers are hoping to get the 2018 version of Ebron that racked up 14 touchdowns and 44 first downs and was sixth in the league in receptions and fifth in yards.

If Ebron can rediscover his red zone magic and thrive with a veteran quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger they could have a dynamic pair of tight ends between he and Vance McDonald.

A big if, but a healthy McDonald and a revitalized Ebron would give the Steelers a receiving tight end combination in the top echelon of the league at a cap hit of under $10,000,000 dollars.

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