The Baltimore Ravens newest addition, veteran offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, spoke to the local and national media in his first official press conference on Wednesday. The day before, he officially signed his two-year deal to replace Orlando Brown Jr. at right tackle.
He shared a lot of insight into who he is as a person, what motivates him, how he became a Raven, and how much he’s looking forward to this new opportunity. Villanueva spent the first seven years of his career playing for the Ravens’ arch division rival in the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Here are some of the top takeaways:
Focused on new beginning
Crossing enemy lines always comes with some public and private feedback for players in the NFL. However, Villanueva is more concerned with getting acclimated to his new team, offense, and overall environment first and foremost.
“I think my focus is on the transition of learning a new playbook – that’s where my attention is right now,” Villanueva said. “It’s obviously a very different playbook, different plays [and] a new position. So, my head right now is in learning and getting to know my teammates, the coaches [and] the lingo.”
While he isn’t focused on making his former team pay for believing he wasn’t worth keeping, the opportunity to play them twice a year definitely played a part in him deciding to come to Baltimore.
“For me, the options were not plenty. So, the fact that I knew the Ravens as a team that plays hard, a team that plays AFC North-type of football and I’d have a chance to play against the Steelers as well was something that motivated me coming here for sure.”
Playing right tackle for the first time
Making the transition from playing predominantly one side of the offensive line to the opposite side is a switch that many linemen find difficult. After playing on the left side as the blindside protector of Ben Roethlisberger and a handful of his backups for the entirety of his career as a starter, Villanueva will be playing the opposite bookend in Baltimore.
Although, he doesn’t view learning his new position as much or as big of a challenge as learning and mastering the Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman’s scheme.
“I feel the transition is going to be more to the playbook of the Ravens than it going to be from left tackle to right tackle, because so many of the plays or so different,” Villanueva said.
He’ll be going from a team that has been one of the most pass-heavy over the last two seasons in Pittsburgh with the Steelers to the most dominant rushing offense in NFL history in Baltimore with the Ravens.
“In Pittsburgh we threw the ball a lot from a two-point stance. We were trying to sort all the blitzers that would come in from Baltimore in different formations. This playbook is a lot more of what I used to do in college. It doesn’t matter if you put your right or left hand down. The left to right tackle is not as important, because we’re not going to be hopefully throwing the ball 800 times a season.”
Playing in a run-centric offense
Even the most elite pass-protecting offensive linemen will admit that they prefer run blocking over pass blocking. On pass plays, they are retreating in their pass pro and often have to read and react to moves and counter moves of pass rushers. Whereas on running plays, they get to be the aggressors moving downhill to impose their will on the opposing defense. The two-time Pro Bowler is relieved that he won’t have the pressure of keeping a clean pocket nearly as often and will be doing a lot more moving forward than kicking back.
“When you know that you’re with a team that runs the ball well, everybody is in unison and there’s a lot of timing involved,” Villanueva said. “You don’t have a lot of angst when the team is running the ball well. When you have to pass the ball, especially like we had to do last year, it involves an incredible amount of pressure because you know the pass rushers can get in a rhythm. You start going against a player like, let’s say Myles Garrett, 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. He has 50 or 60 snaps to try everything he wants to do on you. So it becomes very stressful.”
While he’s been more accustomed to pass protecting more often than not in the pros, he played his college ball for Army at West Point where — they ran an even more run-heavy offense than the Ravens.
“When I was in college, we ran the ball most of the game and I always felt like running the ball was my forte. Pass protection was completely foreign to me,” Villanueva said. “With time, I was able to learn, becoming a student of the game, finding out everything you can about the opponent, about tendencies, about technique, footwork, see what works for you. I expect the same process. Tough pains in the beginning of getting a new stance, developing new muscle groups, seeing the game from different eyes. Hopefully with the help of coaches and teammates, I’ll get comfortable in the offense.”
Differences between the Steelers and Ravens offense
Just looking at 2020 teams statistics shows the differences in the offenses of the two teams and further shines a light on the stark disparities in fundamental philosophies. The Ravens ranked dead last in passing yards, passing yards per game, and passing attempts. The Steelers ranked dead last in rushing yards, rushing yards per game, rushing attempts, and rushing yards per attempt.
Even though the Steelers didn’t have a dominant rushing offensive line, Villanueva still graded out as their highest-graded run blocker per Pro Football Focus with a mark of 60.9. He is excited that he won’t be playing in such a woefully one-dimensional offense in Baltimore contrary to popular belief.
“For us an offensive line in Pittsburgh last year, it was incredibly challenging and we knew we had to go with these game plans that involved passing the ball essentially the entire game. The offensive line for the Ravens, the way that they’re coached, and the attitude that they have is something that has been respected in the AFC North ever since I’ve been in the NFL.”
Excitement level about playing with Lamar Jackson
In Pittsburgh, Villanueva was tasked with protecting future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger during some of his best statistical seasons. Now, he has the opportunity to block for a former unanimous league MVP in Lamar Jackson — who is the most dynamic and electrifying dual-threat quarterback to ever play the game.
“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,” said Villanueva. “I felt that when I was playing with Le’Veon Bell. Le’Veon Bell would make some plays, we’ll drop that football [to him], and you always felt energized, as an offense lineman, to continue to give your best for that player.”
He’s played with and alongside some truly transcendent and generational talent with the Steelers including Bell and Antonio Brown, but nothing quite like Jackson before. Villanueva is excited for the chance to keep him upright, spring him for long runs and do his utmost to help him succeed.
“I don’t think there’s a doubt in anyone’s mind that when you see Lamar Jackson play, you want to do everything for him, protect him and continue to see the magic that he displays on the field, because it not only makes the game of football incredibly fun for the fans and for everybody out there, but it also wins you a lot of football games, and that’s something that the franchise, obviously, has to value and protect.”
Making the transition from the military to civilian life
Villanueva is a veteran in more ways than one. Prior to beginning his NFL career, he served five years in the United States Military as a Captain in the Army Rangers. He was deployed to Afghanistan for three tours. As much as we in the media and fans of the sport of football like to call football players warriors on the gridiron, Villanueva was a real-life soldier and will forever belong to both brotherhoods.
Integrating back into civilian life to pursue one’s dreams and establish a career outside of the service is a metamorphosis that many veterans struggle with and is something he attested to during his presser. He initially didn’t envision himself having a lengthy career in the NFL, seeing it more as a temporary means to an end that would allow him to pay for the opportunity to further his education.
“The transition to get out of the military is incredibly difficult,” Villanueva said. “[It’s] very tough for young men who love their identity to be attached to masculine sort of things, like war stories, battle stories and belonging to a group. So, when you have to find a way forward, it’s not like I had a lot of options. So, the NFL was kind of like American Idol; if I can release one hit song, then I can pay for business school and then I can maybe find something in business school that’s going to give me a new identity.”
The role football has played in his life
The sport of football can open doors and give so much to those that both play and are an enthusiast of the game. It is a microcosm of the society we live in and has played an integral role in Villanueva’s life. Instead of paraphrasing some of his words into text, here they are in their entirety:
“Football has given me absolutely everything,” said Villanueva. “I came to the United States by myself when I was 17 years old. I happened to be born in the United States by accident, and it is a very deceiving miracle that I can speak English so well and not have an accent. But when I came to the United States, and I went to West Point, football was a way in for me.”
“It was a way in for me to learn the culture. It was a way in for me to understand the different dynamics – how individualism plays such a huge part in American culture. I was shocked that there were so many individual awards for a team sport. That, for somebody who comes from Europe, is somewhat odd. And football was always something that gave to me. I think one of the biggest themes for a lot of athletes is just how much football has given to you, when you look back, and you see how much it has changed and transformed your life, and for me, it’s never been any different.”
“Football has given me an incredible amount of opportunity; not just to get into this country and to understand how everything works, but also in terms of leadership, in terms of getting to know people from all over the United States from different socioeconomic backgrounds. There’s not that many places in life where you see that. So, I’ve always been very thankful of the game of football. I’ve always tried to play with a passion, and I’ve always tried to play it – not taking it for granted. I’ve learned, basically everything, ever since I got here in 2006, through the game of football. So, rediscovering the passion has never been something that I’ve had to go through. It’s always been very clear to me that this game, that only gets played, for the majority, in the United States, has given me a path through fully feeling American.”