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Alejandro Villanueva Was Motivated By a Chance to Face His Former Steelers

T Alejandro Villanueva
T Alejandro Villanueva

As a former Army Captain who served in Afghanistan, Alejandro Villanueva knows a thing or two about battles.

The Ravens-Steelers rivalry is as fierce as it gets in the NFL, and Villanueva is changing sides after signing a two-year deal with Baltimore. It's a rare switch, especially for a player of Villanueva's caliber.

Hall of Fame safety Rod Woodson did it in 1998 and helped the Ravens win a Super Bowl two years later, but Villanueva is just the fourth multi-year Pro Bowler from the Steelers to join the Ravens, per ESPN’s Jamison Hensley.

However, Villanueva isn't putting too much significance on the defection.

"I think my focus is on the transition of learning a new playbook – that's where my attention is right now," he said when the first question during his introductory press conference was about joining the rival Ravens.

The Ravens tried to lure Steelers free-agent wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster to Baltimore this offseason, but he opted to stay in Pittsburgh for less money. Smith-Schuster cited the thought of switching sides in the rivalry as one factor in his decision. But it was a different situation for Villanueva.

Shortly after the season ended, the Steelers told Villanueva he would not be re-signed. He started every game at left tackle for them the past five years and went to two Pro Bowls, but Pittsburgh was headed in a different direction and didn't have much salary-cap space. Even though it was a tough split, Villanueva said the Steelers have "always been a class-act organization."

"I just think that everybody makes business decisions," he said. "You'd have to ask the Steelers and their front office, but I'm sure that there were many factors involving salary cap, the direction the team was going to and whatnot.

"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."

As much as Villanueva downplayed any sore feelings about his departure from Pittsburgh, he did view a chance at playing them twice a year as alluring. He'll be lining up across from Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who was in contention for Defensive MVP last season.

Villanueva visited the Under Armour Performance Center in the week before the draft and said he had a "phenomenal" meeting. He said he loved Offensive Line Coach Joe D'Alessandris and that he reminded him of his former Steelers offensive line coach, Mike Munchak.

While he hit it off with the Ravens, Villanueva said the free-agency process was a "mystery" because it was his first time going through it since he was trying to make his transition from the military to the NFL in 2014. Back then, he paid $245 to attend a regional NFL Combine, where he caught the attention of the Philadelphia Eagles as a defensive end.

After not making their roster, the Steelers added Villanueva to their practice squad and turned him into a developmental offensive tackle. Villanueva gained about 90 pounds, and literally grew into one of the league's best. But now on the free-agency market, after a year in which the Steelers ranked last in the NFL in rushing, the 32-year-old Villanueva wasn't a hot commodity.

"I'm an undrafted player. I've always had that title attached to my name and that title attached to my journey." Villanueva said, referring to the way he's been discounted over his career.

"Being from a small school, undrafted, I've always had the urge to try to get with NFL teams. Obviously, if it's a good team like the Ravens, a great organization that has been respected across the NFL, especially from the Steelers building, it wasn't really a tough decision."

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