Sat, 19 Jun 2021

Clifton Brown

Alejandro Villaneuva has left the NFL's most pass-happy offense to join the NFL's heaviest running team.

Instead of retreating in pass protection for Ben Roethlisberger, Villanueva will be asked to impose his will driving forward, providing running lanes for Lamar Jackson, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards.

Villanueva views the vastly different offensive approaches as a bigger transition than switching from left tackle to right tackle, or leaving the Pittsburgh Steelers to join the archrival Ravens.

"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 during his introductory video conference after signing a two-year contract with Baltimore on Tuesday.

"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."

While Baltimore has led the NFL in rushing yards and attempts the past two seasons, the Steelers threw more passes (656) last year than any team in the league. The 180-degree change in offensive philosophy is an adjustment that Villanueva embraces.

Offensive linemen love to attack, to punch rather than counterpunch, and Villanueva is determined to prove his worth as a run-blocking tackle. That's exactly what he was during his college career at Army, and as the Steelers' starting left tackle the past five seasons, he was also an effective run blocker for Le'Veon Bell when he had back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons in 2016 and '17.

The Steelers were the bottom-ranked rushing team in the NFL last season, but Villanueva got the highest run-blocking grade of any Pittsburgh lineman, per Pro Football Focus.

Villanueva has watched the Ravens pound opponents into submission with their running game, and he looks forward to being part of that.

"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."

Villanueva will rely on his experience, hard work, and coaching to make a successful transition from left tackle to the right side. The Ravens traded two-time Pro Bowl tackle Orlando Brown Jr. before the draft, and Villanueva knows he is filling big shoes, but he will draw on his college experience playing in a run-oriented system.

"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."

Villanueva is the latest piece in Baltimore's revamped offensive line. Right guard Kevin Zeitler was signed in free agency. Third-round draft pick Ben Cleveland will compete for the starting left guard spot, while the starting left guard the past two seasons, Bradley Bozeman, could be moving from left guard to center.

One thing that won't change for Villanueva is being part of an organization with high expectations. Villanueva said he never complained about how much the Steelers threw the ball last season, because it gave them the best chance to win. Now that he has joined the team with the league's most dynamic running attack, Villanueva is confident he will make the necessary adjustments.

"Whether you're running the ball, whether you're passing the ball, as an offensive lineman, you have to be selfless," Villanueva said. "You have to avoid a complaining at all costs. It can bring the morale down. Try to make a challenge out of it.

"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."

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