In the last game of Alejandro Villanueva’s Pittsburgh Steelers career, Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass 68 times.
It was a wild-card-round game against the Cleveland Browns, and the Steelers were trailing. A 14-0 hole became a 28-0 pit of misery, which became a stunning 48-37 loss, and Pittsburgh’s lone recourse that January night was to pass and pass and pass, hoping against hope that its line would hold up, that Cleveland would choke, that offensive balance wasn’t actually necessary.
At an introductory news conference Wednesday, Villanueva welcomed the challenges of a move to Baltimore, where he’s set to play a new position in a new system with new teammates. He made clear his respect for Pittsburgh, where he became a two-time Pro Bowl left tackle and started 90 straight games. But in some ways his greatest excitement might have been in his leaving behind the Steelers’ pass-first, pass-second, ask-questions-later attack for a Ravens offense more like the one he enjoyed over a decade ago at Army West Point.
It was maybe no coincidence that, when he was asked about the different psychology of blocking for an offense that has led the NFL in rushing for two straight years, he mentioned Cleveland’s Myles Garrett, one of the last edge rushers he faced with Pittsburgh.
“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,” said Villanueva, who helped Roethlisberger finish without a sack taken in that playoff loss. “So you’re going to start going against a player like … 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.”
Not that his Ravens tenure will be a walk in the park. Villanueva, 32, who signed a two-year, $14 million contract Tuesday, was brought in to replace the recently traded Orlando Brown Jr. at right tackle, where he’s played just nine snaps over the past six seasons, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Villanueva isn’t so much concerned with the change in footwork and hand placement, the fundamentals he’s practiced since his starting streak began in 2015, as he is with devouring a new playbook. The Steelers last year played one kind of way with Roethlisberger in control — quick-strike throws, three-receiver sets, 40-plus-attempt afternoons — and the Ravens will play another.
Which is fine with Villanueva. “The [move from] left to right tackle is not as important,” he said, “because we’re not going to be, hopefully, throwing the ball 800 times a season.” (The Steelers didn’t quite throw the ball 800 times last season, but at 656 attempts, they did come the closest in the NFL.)
Villanueva acknowledged Wednesday that his free-agent options were “not plenty.” Pittsburgh officials told him shortly after the season ended that his time with the team was over. While he gave up just three sacks all season, according to Pro Football Focus, he struggled down the stretch. Six of his eight games with what SIS called multiple “blown blocks” happened in Week 10 or later. In a Week 15 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, he allowed seven pressures, including one sack and three hits, and his PFF pass-blocking grade was his worst of the season.
Talking to Baltimore-area reporters from South Florida, Villanueva said he has “very little communication with the outside world.” He’d heard from former Steelers teammates in recent days, not Steelers fans. But he understood why Pittsburgh, strapped for salary cap space, had decided to part ways.
“I just think that everyone makes business decisions,” he said. “The Steelers have to make their decisions, and then obviously … my agent has to inform me of what my options are in the future.
He added: “The fact that I knew the Ravens as a team, as a team that plays hard, a team that plays AFC North-type football, and I’d have a chance to play against the Steelers as well, was something that motivated coming here, for sure.”
Villanueva called Pittsburgh “a class-act organization,” but he had his fun casting his old Steelers friends as foes, too. He joked that switching from guard David DeCastro to the Ravens’ Kevin Zeitler as a carpool companion would be an “upgrade.” He seemed to take a jab at wide receiver and social media celebrity JuJu Smith-Schuster, saying the Ravens offense is likely “not as fun for the wide receivers, because they’re not getting all the catches. They’re making the TikToks, and they’re having fun on their social media.”
He also indirectly drew a comparison between the Steelers’ Roethlisberger-centric offense (No. 15 in passing, No. 32 rushing) and the one in Baltimore helmed by Lamar Jackson (No. 32 in passing, No. 1 in rushing). When teams pass-block, Villanueva said, they court “catastrophe” when they can’t get the ball out quickly on drop-backs. Jackson, though, is a different talent at quarterback, rare enough that “you want to do everything for him, protect him and continue to see the magic that he displays on the field.”
Villanueva didn’t have a problem with his job responsibilities late in his Pittsburgh tenure. The former U.S. Army Ranger said offensive linemen have to remain selfless, avoid complaining “at all costs,” do their job. But he was happy to get back to his roots. His last year in college, the Black Knights’ leading passer threw just 110 passes all season. Watching Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell make plays during his heyday? “Energizing.” A rushing attack isn’t a cure-all, but it does relieve “a lot of angst,” he said. There is a kind of release in aggression.
“When I was in college, we ran the ball most of the game, and I always felt like running the ball was my forte, and that if I ever were to play in the NFL, it would be very difficult for me as a tackle because I would not know pass protection,” Villanueva said. “Pass protection was something completely foreign to me. … With time, I was able to learn and understand the process of becoming a student of the game and finding out everything that you can about the opponent, about tendencies, about technique, footwork, and see what works for you.
“And so for me, I expect the same process — the tough pains in the beginning of getting in a new stance, developing new muscle groups, seeing the game from different eyes, and hopefully, with the help of coaches and teammates, to be able to get comfortable in the offense and play the game of football like it’s supposed to be played.”