One of the biggest differences in the regular season that's about to be completed on Sunday is the players and coaches have been able to hear the way the games are being played.
"It's interesting, the National Football League, on both sides of the ball communicate really well," Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner observed today. "At any one given time you're gonna hear on a second down call, 'Hey, watch the draw, watch the screen, watch the deep ball.' So you hear these things all the time. Any time that someone says something like that in game, it could have been any of those three things and you may not have done any of that.
"There's always communication, you see it, we feel it. One of the things now is it's so quit you actually hear it. You can actually hear coaches on the sidelines so you're hearing different things, 'Hey, watch the screen, watch the deep ball, hey, he's blocking.' You get a whole lot more of that than you probably ever could have noticed before because of the loudness of the stadium."
Fichtner cited an example of what's been happening from last Sunday's 28-24 victory over Indianapolis, a third-and-1 run that lost 2 yards in the first quarter.
"We ran our first 'ISO' play of this season, first one we ran," Fichtner explained. "We put (fullback) Derek (Watt) in, he went in to 'ISO' (isolate on) the linebacker. We didn't have success with it. We didn't win the down.
"But it was funny because young (wide receiver) Chase Claypool ran off, he said, 'Hey, they were calling out that we were going to run the ball.' Well, it was third down and 1 and generally, we run the ball (on third-and-1). 'Hey, watch the run,' and at he same time the safety's yelling over at that corner, 'Hey, I got your back in case they go deep ball to you.' There's just so much communication."
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has heard it, as well.
But Roethlisberger doesn't think such pre-snap communication betrays whether or not a defense is a step ahead.
Sometimes, it reveals the defense is actually a step behind.
"For instance, on (wide receiver) Diontae (Johnson's) touchdown (against Indianapolis), they were yelling 'slant, slant slant,'" Roethlisberger offered. "Their sideline was to my right, right by where Diontae was. They were yelling 'slant, slant, slant!' The coverage that they gave us, actually, we should have run a slant. I almost changed the play but I didn't because they were yelling it. I heard them. Diontae heard them. Their DB heard them. So I was like, 'Good, we want them to think we are running a slant because we're running a fade. This could end up working really well.'
"So I think it can hurt and help, if that kind of makes sense. There are absolutely times in games where you hear a defender say, 'Hey, watch this,' and you're like, 'Man, that's what we called.' Some of that is dumb luck. Some of it, maybe it's tendencies. We can hear stuff that they talk about. It is one of the most unique years when it comes to strategy, when it comes to trying to trick people.
"Sometimes, you even are trying to do dummy signals and saying dummy things just to make things happen or to trick the other teams. There are times in that first half that they were calling things out, but once again, are they getting lucky, or do they know something? It's hard to tell."
It's a two-way street in head coach Mike Tomlin's estimation, as it was in the Colts game.
"We were calling out their plays, too," Tomlin said. (Colts quarterback) Phillip Rivers was calling out our adjustments. I think it is one of the things that goes on in 2020 during the global pandemic when you are playing in crickets, in eerily quiet stadiums.
"I know other teams have talked about that some. I think it is just one of the adjustable things that we all globally have to deal with in the 2020 environment because of the level of communication and the amount of communication that's heard between units prior to a snap in 2020's environment."