Returning to Pittsburgh Is Emotional for Alejandro Villanueva. The Game? Not More Than Usual

OT Alejandro Villanueva

For a man that's been to war, the Ravens-Steelers rivalry is nothing but a skirmish.

Alejandro Villanueva will return to Pittsburgh this week after spending seven years in black and gold. But his emotions won't be wrapped up in the game (at least not more than usual) or being on the other side of the rivalry.

It will be more about the places and people that have touched his life.

"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 said Carnegie Mellon University was one of the biggest influences in his life. He talked about Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin and a couple of the Steelers' trainers. He joked about wishing he could brawl with former offensive lineman teammate Maurkice Pouncey.

But when it came to talking about the anticipated emotions of wearing a Ravens jersey into Heinz Field, Villanueva basically yawned.

"I don't know. We'll see when I cross that bridge," he said.

"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 re-invent yourself for a game. Otherwise, what have you been doing the past few games?"

Villanueva took the same kind of outlook on the entire Ravens-Steelers rivalry itself, saying it doesn't compare to the soccer rivalries he grew up with in Spain.

"I think the media loves this rivalry. Obviously, the ratings go up, tickets go up," he said. "I come from a country where there's a true rivalry between two giants, in Real Madrid and Barcelona. … 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."

Villanueva is impressed with the way that the Ravens and Steelers have continually battled it out for so many years while everybody else goes through constant turnover. He credited head coaches John Harbaugh and Tomlin with "resisting to give in to each other."

But this week, he's just locked into his preparation for a defense he knows well. It remains to be seen whether the Steelers will have All-Pro outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who has the second-most sacks in the league but is currently on the Reserve/COVID-19 list.

Villanueva knows the impact players don't stop there. Even though Pittsburgh's defense is ranked 25th in the NFL, they have a dangerous front.

"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."

Villanueva's first season with the Ravens hasn't been exactly what he signed up for.

He came with the understanding that he would have to shift to right tackle with Ronnie Stanley's return, but after a rough season-opener in Las Vegas on the right side and Stanley going back on the shelf, he's moved back to his familiar left side.

Villanueva also thought he'd be part of a heavy rushing attack, which he was happy about after continuously having to pass block for Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh. But after season-ending injuries to J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, the Ravens are more balanced than in previous seasons.

"Yeah, what's up with that?" Villanueva quipped.

He's had an up-and-down season, with high grades from Pro Football Focus for his games against the Chiefs, Chargers and Vikings, but low marks versus the Raiders, Lions, Bengals and Bears.

With the Ravens offense stumbling a bit over the past three games, Villanueva said the offensive line has to focus on its job of protecting the prize – Lamar Jackson.

"I think the cool thing about what I've experienced my whole life is that when you go into a new group, a new culture, you start seeing who the leaders are, and they almost carry the team," Villanueva said. "For us and the Baltimore Ravens, being close to Lamar Jackson – my locker is right next to his – and being able to play with him has been phenomenal. Whatever highlights his talents and his abilities and whatever wins us games, it's what we're willing to do.

"When you're in the huddle with Lamar Jackson, he does inspire greatness in all of us, regardless of who we are or our abilities and whatnot, and that definitely compensates for the other minutia that comes with the game."

Even if that minutia is the hype of Ravens-Steelers.

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