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Alejandro Villanueva discusses what made Steelers’ 2020 season ‘incredibly challenging’, joining rival Ravens

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Alejandro Villanueva has no qualms about joining the Ravens, the archrival of Villanueva’s former team in Pittsburgh. Villanueva, who recently inked a two-year deal with Baltimore, said that he is excited to be part of a run-heavy offense after spending the past six seasons with the pass-happy Steelers. 

A two-time Pro Bowl left tackle, Villanueva opened up about his challenges during his final season with the Steelers. With the Steelers’ running attack virtually nonexistent, the Steelers relied heavily on the right arm of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. And while Pittsburgh started 11-0, its lack of balance contributed to the team’s 1-5 finish and first-round playoff exit. 

“For us as an offensive line in Pittsburgh last year, it was incredibly challenging that we knew that we had to go with these game plans that involved passing the ball potentially the entire game,” Villanueva said during Wednesday’s virtual media press conference. “The mentality when you have a balanced offense, or when you run the ball, it’s obviously better for an offensive line. I’m assuming it’s not as fun for the wide receivers because they’re not getting all the catches. They’re making their TikToks, and they’re having fun on social media. But for an offensive lineman, it’s definitely an awesome experience.”

Villanueva explained the significant disadvantage he and his fellow Pittsburgh offensive linemen faced last season. 

“When you have to pass the ball, especially like you had to do last year, it involves an incredible amount of pressure,” he said. “Because you know the pass rushers can get into a rhythm. You’re going against Myles Garrett, and he’s going to get 10, 15 passes in a row to set up moves, to be able to attack every single angle of your body, try different moves. He has 50 to 60 snaps to try everything  that he wants to do on you. So it becomes very stressful.” 

While his final season in Pittsburgh wasn’t a picnic, Villanueva spoke highly about a franchise that gave him a chance seven years ago. A former United States Army Ranger, the Steelers signed Villanueva to their practice squad in 2014. After making the 53-man roster in 2015, Villanueva replaced injured starter Kelvin Beachum in Week 6. He remained in the Steelers’ starting lineup through the 2020 season. Villanueva’s 91 consecutive starts during that span were the most by any Pittsburgh player. 

“Pittsburgh has always been a class-act organization,” Villanueva said, “and they let me know that I was not coming back to the team very shortly after the season.”

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Villanueva said that the prospect of playing the Steelers (at least) twice a year was part of his motivation with signing with the Ravens. He is also excited to block for former league MVP Lamar Jackson

“There are certain players in the NFL that truly inspire you to get the best out of you because you see how rare the talent is,” Villanueva said. “I felt that when I was playing with Le’Veon Bell. You always felt energized as an offensive lineman to continue to give your best for that player. I don’t think there’s a doubt in anyone’s mind that when you watch Lamar Jackson play, you want to do everything for him, protect him and continue to see the magic that he displays on the field. 

“Not only does it make the game of football incredibly fun for the fans and for everybody out there, but it also lets you win a lot of football games.” 

A left tackle in Pittsburgh, Villanueva is slated to be the Ravens’ right tackle in 2021. Villanueva will be flanked on Baltimore’s starting offensive line by left tackle Ronnie Stanley, left guard Bradley Bozeman, center Patrick Mekari, and right guard Kevin Zeitler. The unit will look to provide sturdy protection for Jackson and clear running lanes for running backs J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill

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Villanueva opened up about how his original goal in the NFL was to play one season in order to pay for business school. Not only did Villanueva’s NFL career take off, he was able to get his MBA from Carnegie Mellon in 2019. He is now hoping to cap off his career with a championship, something that eluded him during his time in Pittsburgh. 

“Had there been another war or another conflict, I probably would have never gotten out of the military,” Villanueva said. “I had to make the transition into the civilian world, which is a very, very difficult transition. It’s finding a new identity. It’s finding who you are. It’s finding your passions and your purpose, which is not easy to do when you’re 24 years old and the only thing you know is the military. 

“I thought, if I played one year in the NFL, even if I just fooled some of the coaches who are infatuated with the military, that I’d be able to pay for business school. My goal in Pittsburgh was to play one year and get out and go to business school at one of the top programs and move on with my life. I was able to do both.” 

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