Ravens see more comfortable Villanueva at old left tackle spot

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — You could forgive Alejandro Villanueva for noting how “very little upside” there is to playing offensive tackle after his nightmarish Ravens debut in Week 1.

Making his first NFL start at right tackle after six seasons protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blindside in Pittsburgh, the 33-year-old looked completely out of his element with Pro Football Focus crediting him with a league-high 10 pressures allowed in the 33-27 overtime loss at Las Vegas. Villanueva wasn’t available to local reporters in the days leading up to the Sunday night clash with Kansas City, but the former Army Ranger told NBC Sports that playing offensive tackle reminded him of jumping out of airplanes in the military.

The best for which one can hope is to survive and not be noticed, which wasn’t the case for Villanueva going up against defensive end Maxx Crosby and the Raiders as many immediately wondered if the Ravens had made an $8 million mistake in the offseason. Asked last week whether he was concerned with Villanueva’s season-opening performance, head coach John Harbaugh didn’t want to get into the evaluation and said, “He works his butt off to get better; he’s going to play very well for us.”

“I think that offensive linemen are very dark people in a lot of ways,” said Villanueva when asked to expand on the airplane analogy. “I think it’s a position where when you close your eyes before the play, all sorts of bad things are happening. You’re hoping that they don’t because a lot of things are outside of your control.”

(Alejandro Villanueva talks with reporters prior to Thursday’s practice in Owings Mills.)

Villanueva may not have been able to prevent those bad things from happening in Week 1, but something else entirely out of his control prompted an unexpected return to his old position last week. With Ronnie Stanley struggling just as much as Villanueva in his return from last November’s left ankle injury that required two surgeries, it was apparent the 2019 Pro Bowl left tackle wasn’t yet right physically. With Stanley sidelined once again, the Ravens wasted no time moving Villanueva back to the left side despite the veteran newcomer having not practiced there in the spring or summer as he was completely focused on getting acclimated to his new position.

Faced with the challenge of trying to slow Chiefs defensive ends Frank Clark and Chris Jones last Sunday night, Villanueva allowed no pressures and graded as the league’s second-best offensive tackle in Week 2, according to PFF. The 6-foot-9, 320-pound tackle’s play was a big reason why the Ravens were able to rebound from their Week 1 loss with a dramatic 36-35 win over the the rival Chiefs, but offensive coordinator Greg Roman doesn’t think it was simply about Villanueva returning to his natural position.

“I just think he’s getting more comfortable with what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and whatnot,” said Roman, who also admitted to being pleasantly surprised with Villanueva’s run blocking. “The crowd noise was a little factor for him in that first game, but I really think as I watch, he’s really getting more comfortable with things.

“I think he looked at that first game and just said, ‘That’s not going to happen again.’ That’s a credit to him.”

Of course, we shouldn’t draw any strong conclusions with the Ravens offensive line just happy to be able to start the same five guys at the same five positions for the second straight game after shuffling three spots from Week 1 to Week 2. Having already missed practices on Wednesday and Thursday this week, Stanley appears very likely to miss a second straight game at Detroit on Sunday and the timetable for his return remains unclear.

In the same way Villanueva didn’t deserve to be buried after one game at right tackle, we can’t assume his strong performance at left tackle will continue if he has to play there indefinitely. There’s also the question of whether Patrick Mekari — who periodically deals with back issues — can hold up at right tackle for an extended period of time. And how might Villanueva adjust moving back to right tackle whenever Stanley does return?

The Ravens are clearly a better team with a healthy Stanley at left tackle, but they have to be pleased with how their revamped offensive line excelled against the Chiefs and will hope for similar results against the Lions, knowing a new challenge awaits every week with the potential for bad things to happen. A seasoned veteran like Villanueva understands that’s just life as an offensive lineman in the NFL where it’s important not to get too high or too low over each performance.

“I think the sample size is very small. We’re talking about two games,” Villanueva said. “There’s a lot of football left, and there’s a lot of improvement we have to have as an offense and as a team.”