Training camp may have opened on July 28, but that's really in name only because there isn't going to be anything resembling typical training camp as far as on-field work for close to three weeks. This comes on the heels of no offseason program and no minicamps, and with no preseason games on the horizon. For his part, Randy Fichtner hasn't had a chance yet to lay eyes on the pass-catching tight end who was the crown jewel of the free agency period, at least not face-to-face, and the next time he's in the same room with the offensive rookies will be the first time.
During a Zoom call today, the Steelers offensive coordinator was asked if there is anything about this run-up to the 2020 regular season that would qualify as normal, and somewhat shockingly Fichtner didn't need much time to think of something.
"That might be the easiest question to answer," said Fichtner. "Normal now becomes Ben Roethlisberger back in the huddle. He's paired up with Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and some of those guys up front. That just gives you the normalcy. That will be normal. That's what we're used to. Just getting back to normal will be looking at a group of mostly experienced players and being excited about what this journey, this season, is going to bring."
Fichtner admitted that he didn't get a chance to spend time with Roethlisberger during the offseason, but he was able to see him doing some throwing on the videos that were making the rounds on social media. That changed over the last day or so now that quarterbacks have been allowed to return to their teams, and even though Fichtner indicated he expected to see Roethlisberger throwing a football soon, the rules set forth by the NFL and the NFLPA don't allow for something as basic as a padless 7-on-7 drill until the middle of August. And don't forget, no preseason games this summer.
"We'll have to take advantage of those game situations we can present for him against our defense," said Fichtner about how the process of getting Roethlisberger ready is likely to unfold. "Naturally, the first thing is we have to get a feel for where he is, and his arm will tell us. It's not unusual for us to work him a day, then work him a half-day, then get him a day's rest, and he knows that routine. It's going to be a little bit different kind of camp, and so I think we'll have to play that by ear (in terms of) how he feels and how much he wants, because there are going to be times when he wants it all, and we're going to have to back him off. That's a good thing."
Fichtner also addressed a variety of other topics on Wednesday:
On the issue of developing offensive chemistry with the new and/or young players:
"We're going to have to do it very carefully, but we're also going to have to jump right into it and take advantage of every day we get to work with the players. We have to hit the ground running and see how the guys fit, but the most important thing is finding out as quickly as we possibly can what they're comfortable with, both within the system and with how we're going to use them. What usually takes the young guy out of play early is between the ears. It's never really the talent, it's not the physicality. They all belong. It's how comfortable and how quickly they can understand how to do what you ask them to do. But I don't want to put a ceiling on any one of them, because there are some signs of maturity. And that's what's exciting."
On what new quarterbacks coach Matt Canada can bring to the offense:
"I know that when it comes to ideas and when it comes to thoughts and things you can bring to the table every week and what he can bring to the table that might be different than I would in that room is going to be really fun to see and develop."
On the addition of Ike Hilliard as wide receivers coach:
"Adding a lot of (NFL) playing experience to coaching experience in the National Football League is unique. It always has been. We probably spent a month together before Pennsylvania shut down, we spent an awful lot of time doing what you and I are doing right now. And it really is an awesome experience. He has a unique mind for the game. I think his personality is going to mesh with young guys. We like to think we have young guys, but if you look at the Washington roster last year, the youth that they played with and some of the things that those young guys did was impressive. And he was very impressive in the interview. And I am ecstatic.
On James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2020:
"I think they're committed to doing all the right things to put themselves in position to be better this season. If I was JuJu, if I was Diontae [Johnson], if I was any skill player on offense, I wouldn't just say, 'Wow, Ben Roethlisberger's back, so I'm going to come back better.' That's not going to happen. It doesn't happen like that. He's going to make you better, but man, you're not winning if you're not trying personally to get better, and I know they are."
On the likelihood of Matt Feiler staying at left guard:
"Both (Chuks Okorafor and Zach Banner) have played in (regular season) football games, and to a degree, have had equal success and are exciting young players. I do know Matt is very intelligent. Matt is very physical. Matt had a heckuva football season last year, in my opinion. He's going to be successful whether he's inside or outside, and if we feel comfortable maybe with one of those younger (tackles), or with [Stephan Wisniewski], or with one of those younger guards, we have to play the best five. And we have to figure that out quickly enough."
On being able to use more two-tight-end formations:
"I think (adding Eric Ebron to Vance McDonald) automatically puts yourself in that position. Now again, availability is always the biggest issue when you play that really tough position. You have to play (tight end) somewhat like a race car, but you have to be able to be a Ford truck, too. Tight ends play in a world that is very physical and their availability will allow us to utilize two, if not more, and that will be awesome. I always feel comfortable when I have two tight ends, dependable ones who can be equally good in the pass and the run. I like Eric, I like everything about him. I haven't had the chance to meet him, but just the virtual (meetings) and that type of thing has been really good."