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Now In Purple And Black, Villanueva Reflects On Ravens-Steelers Rivalry. But It's No El Clásico, He Says

OWINGS MILLS, Md. (WJZ) -- Alejandro Villanueva doesn't know how he'll feel when he gets to Heinz Field, his professional home for the first six years of his NFL career.

"We'll see when I cross that bridge," he told reporters Wednesday.

There will, of course, be some emotions for the Ravens' left tackle. Pittsburgh is the city Villanueva, the son of an officer in the Spanish Navy, has lived in the longest and where he had all his children. He called Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin a "father figure," and said he used to mimic Tomlin's vocal cadence when talking to his kids.

The Steelers took a chance on Villanueva, a former U.S. Army Ranger who served three tours Afghanistan, by signing him to their practice squad in 2014, when he was 26. It more than paid off. Villanueva, who lined up at offensive tackle, defensive lineman and wideout at West Point, played every game on the team's offensive line between 2015 and 2020 and made every start in his last five years. He twice was selected to the Pro Bowl in black and gold.

With the Ravens set to face the Steelers this Sunday, he finds himself on the other side of the rivalry between AFC North foes.

"None of these teams want to bend a knee to the other, so they're always going to be competing for No. 1, No. 2," he said.

But to him, it doesn't come close to games between Spanish fútbol teams Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, a matchup simply known as El Clásico.

"To me, that's a rivalry," he said. "That's a rivalry that's tearing the country apart."

Both the Ravens and the Steelers run the ball hard and play tough defense, Villanueva observed, and the fans and media really get into it.

But he reduced any rivalry between Baltimore and Pittsburgh to "two good teams that happen to play each other twice a year, usually in the cold."

The two fan bases are in working-class towns, "so everybody wants to be the most blue collar, if you will," he said.

"Unfortunately, I cannot provide any further hype to the rivalry," he deadpanned.

Aside from his slight to the history of Ravens-Steelers, Villanueva declined to give any bulletin-board material to his former team, losers of their last two games.

Tomlin is one of the best minds in football, he said, and Pittsburgh's defense still has great players in linebacker Devin Bush, defensive end Cam Heyward and cornerback Joe Haden, to name a few. (Another he player named, linebacker T.J. Watt, was recently placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.)

"Records, statistics, they're awesome to write articles and to hype up and bring down football teams. But for us as players and us as teams, we understand that we're going against a very, very good defense, one of the best in the NFL," he said. "It's going to be a tremendous challenge for us, regardless of what they've done in the past."

The 33-year-old did marvel at the durability of Harbaugh and Tomlin, who have both managed to have long careers and win more than 200 games while countless other head coaches have been shown the door. So what has allowed them have such sustained success?

Apparently, it's a long answer.

"I can't tell you that, unless you offer me a coffee and a cigarette," he quipped.

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