Ray Lewis. Jerome Bettis. Ed Reed. Hines Ward.
These are just a few names that have defined the Pittsburgh Steelers/Baltimore Ravens rivalry over the years. These two perennial pillars of the AFC North face of at least twice a year, and often, their contests are among the best of the entire NFL season.
These names and others go back and forth, changing the balance of power between these two rivals. Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, James Harrison, and Lamar Jackson have all come in since these two teams started playing in 1996 and changed the balance of power between the two teams.
What rarely happens is a key player leaving one side of the heated rivalry and joining the enemy. This just happened though, and the Ravens’ signing of left tackle Alejandro Villanueva may have just shifted the balance of power in the division in 2021.
Only four big-time players have changed sides in this rivalry
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Most NFL teams have little issue signing or having a player sign with a team in their division. Bill Belichick and the Patriots have practically made a sport of it. The battles between the Steelers and Ravens are so intense that neither the players nor teams are generally very interested in moving across the Pennsylvania/Maryland border.
Prior to Villanueva making the switch, only three Pro Bowl-level players played for Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Tight end Eric Green, who made two Pro Bowl appearances in five seasons with the Steelers in the early 90s, played three relatively productive years with the Ravens later in his career.
Five-time Pro Bowl safety Carnell Lake played a decade in black and gold. He then spent his final year in the NFL on the Ravens in 2001. Former Steelers linebacker coach Marvin Lewis coordinated that defense which included the most notable player to switch sides. Defensive back Rod Woodson built his Hall of Fame career in the Steel City but spent four very productive years in Charm City from 1999-2001.
The Baltimore Ravens need offensive line help
The ingrained image of Baltimore’s 2020 season-ending loss is the superstar quarterback lying in his own end zone in Buffalo. He’s holding his concussed head while his linemen gather around him. This is the image Raven’s GM Eric DeCosta surely was thinking about when he signed Villanueva to upgrade Jackson’s protection.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Ravens offensive line was decidedly average last year, finishing 16th in their O-line rankings. All-Pro Marshall Yanda retired before the season and the line faced a slate of injuries in 2020. The Ravens already signed former New York Giants guard Kevin Zeitler to bolster the line and now have added Villanueva.
In Villanueva – who will move from left to right tackle this season – DeCosta and head coach Jim Harbaugh get a giant, 6’9”, 320 lb. lineman who has been protecting Roethlisberger’s blind side for six seasons. The West Point graduate made the Pro Bowl in 2017 and 2018 and brings toughness and leadership from his days as an Army Ranger stationed in Afghanistan.
Alejandro Villanueva admits two shots at the Steelers is a big reason he signed
PFF rated the Steelers line one spot lower than the Ravens and noted, “A 31st-ranked run-blocking unit is what drops them to 17th on this list. The only starting offensive lineman with a run-blocking grade north of 60.0 is Alejandro Villanueva.”
Pittsburgh squeaked into the playoffs in 2020 after being swept in their season series versus the Ravens. The loss of a great pass blocker and their best run blocker can’t be good for the Steelers in 2021. It is why a move like this, which fills a hole for the Ravens and creates one for the Steelers, could truly shift the balance of power next season.
For his part, there is no love lost between Villanueva and his only NFL home to this point. He told the media at his initial Ravens press conference, per ESPN:
The fact that I knew the Ravens is a team that plays hard, a team that plays AFC North-type football and I get a chance to play the Steelers as well was something that motivated me coming here for sure.
The hulking tackle also couldn’t resist taking a shot at one of his more flamboyant ex-teammates. Villanueva talked about the Ravens wide receivers and how they aren’t “making the TikToks” or “having fun on their social media,” seemingly referring to Juju Smith-Shuester’s viral dancing.
The Ravens may now have the power in the AFC North but, with this new, contentious wrinkle to the rivalry, it sure is going to be fun watching the Steelers try and take it back from them in 2021.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference