The rivalry between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers has been arguably the fiercest in the entire league for the better part of the past two decades. Their heated battles on the gridiron have spawned iconic moments for both franchises and drawn comparisons a war-like atmosphere. However, for Ravens’ left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who actually went to war as a member of the armed forces, it is nowhere near on the same level.
Villanueva spent the first six years of his career with the Steelers following his service in the military. This Sunday, the former Army Ranger will be suiting up on the Ravens side of the rivalry for the first time. When asked about how it will feel when he lines up opposite of his former employers and teammates at Heinz Field, he was unenthusiastic, to say the least.
“I don’t know. We’ll see when I cross that bridge,” Villanueva said Wednesday.
“I think the game of football is almost auto-pilot. A lot of times, they say, ‘You’re going to play harder or easier.’ No, you play to the best of your abilities regardless of who you’re playing against, whether you’re playing against the Lions, whether you’re playing against the best team in the NFL. As a player, me personally, I think you always try to do your best. It’s not like you’re going to reinvent yourself for a game. Otherwise, what have you been doing the past few games?”
While he isn’t making much out of the game itself, Villanueva admitted that he will be somewhat in his feelings and sentimental about returning to the city where some of the biggest moments and fondest memories in his life occurred.
“There is truly an emotional component of going back to Pittsburgh,” Villanueva said. “It’s a city that I’ve lived the longest in my life; I had all four of my kids there; I went to school in Pittsburgh.”
Villanueva downplayed the division rivalry further by suggesting that it is more hyped up by the media and pales in comparison to the magnitude of one of the fiercest soccer rivalries in the world.
“I come from a country where there’s a true rivalry between two giants, in Real Madrid and Barcelona,” he said. “To me, that’s a rivalry. That’s a rivalry that’s tearing the country apart.
“This is just two good teams that happen to play each other twice a year, usually in the cold, from working towns, so everybody just wants to be the most ‘blue-collar,’ if you will. I always saw the Brazilian players on Real Madrid and Barcelona just completely ignoring everything else that came with the rivalry, and I feel somewhat like that.”
Neither team has been playing their best as of late. While the Ravens have managed to find ways to keep winning and have won two straight, though, the Steelers are coming off a blowout loss to the Cincinnati Bengals and tied with the winless Lions the week before. Despite being atop the AFC North and being ranked first in the conference as a whole, the Ravens still have the utmost respect for their archrivals and aren’t taking them lightly.
“We’re going against a very good football team and amazing defense that I know is preparing to the best of their ability,” Villanueva said. “[It’s] a very good defense that knows us very well, and that’s just more motivation to prepare harder, to go hard at practice, and to try to fight this very good team.”