Ready or not, here it comes:
• There are a lot of unique elements to this particular run-up to the NFL regular season, and while it starts for the Steelers with a training camp that's being held at Heinz Field instead of Saint Vincent College with no fans permitted to watch the daily on-field drills, the most significant impact for all 32 teams on what actually happens come mid-September is going to be the absence of any preseason games.
• It has become extremely fashionable to criticize preseason games as being unfit for fans' viewing pleasure, and even Commissioner Roger Goodell has spoken publicly about it. "I feel what we should be doing is always to the highest quality, and I'm not sure preseason games meet that level right now," Goodell said in 2019 while participating in Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly's 33rd charity golf tournament outside of Buffalo.
• I admit to finding the preseason as tedious and boring as anyone, but the notion that it's meaningless, that it has no purpose, simply isn't true.
• These Steelers are less than a full week into the football-in-pads portion of this one-of-a-kind process by which Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert will trim a roster that currently contains 80 players down to the group to be put on the field for its opener against the New York Giants on Monday, Sept. 14, provided the Steelers open the 2020 season against the New York Giants on Monday, Sept. 14, that is.
• Tomlin is available to the media via Zoom after every practice these days, and he already has been getting questions about the status of position battles, about his impressions of some of the young and/or new players, about how various personnel groupings and roles within the offense or defense might shake out.
• Certainly premature, but also legitimate questions. The reality is there are no answers today because it's just too early, and it's fair to speculate whether, without any preseason games, there even will be any real answers, or maybe it will just come down to decisions being made because decisions have to be made.
PROMOTIONS FROM JV TO THE VARSITY
• In a Tomlin camp, the first part of the process involves figuring out which young players are capable of working their way up from junior varsity to varsity, and doing it quickly enough and definitively enough to threaten a veteran's roster spot. Tomlin uses the "varsity" and "junior varsity" terminology because all players who have grown up in the sport inherently understand and recognize the distinction between the two groups.
• "We're thoughtful about the groups that we put the young guys in within the training camp setting," said Tomlin. "Basically we're running three groups, and the first group contains the veteran starters, the second group contains the guys who have been backups and have been in this thing, and the third group is made up of guys where it's a first-time camp experience for them, whether they're rookies or otherwise.
• "You have to earn your stripes, and you have to dominate the group you're working in if you're going to move up. The mile markers are: If a guy is consistently controlling what's going on in the third group, then he gets an opportunity to move up to the second group. Sometimes those opportunities are born out of a lack of availability of others, and so when guys get an opportunity to move up within groups and display skill within those groups, those are mile markers.
• "Inevitably, the second-team line is the Mendoza Line," concluded Tomlin. "I tell the third group all the time as they take the field, 'Hey, in a month from now the third group doesn't exist in the National Football League.' There are a lot of markers, a lot of crossroads, and we've been pretty transparent about acknowledging them."
• Players invariably begin their movement up or down the depth chart during practice, and then their place within those groups end up being reinforced or re-thought based on what happens in preseason games. That would be the typical procedure for creating separation among the players, but without preseason games some form of that will have to be determined during practices. And what makes it more difficult to accomplish during practices is that game situations often have to be manufactured instead of happening organically.
• As just one example, there is a situational awareness required during games that doesn't occur during a practice. And what's meant here by situational awareness are things such as knowing which packages and personnel groups are supposed to be on the field or off the field at certain times dictated by down-and-distance, or by the scoreboard, or by time on the clock.
• An individual who has become a part of punt coverage within a game because of an injury earlier in that game also could be a part of a defensive package including multiple defensive backs. If it's late in the game and the opponent is in a catch-up situation, or if the opponent simply decides that after the punt it wants to open the possession in a no-huddle offense, does the backup-turned-first-team punt coverage individual realize he has to stay on the field? Does he get the ensuing defensive call? And does all of it happen within the realities of the running play-clock?
• Having to burn a timeout, or being mis-aligned, or busting a coverage because somebody didn't get the call or hear the call is never a good thing, but it's exponentially worse if it happens in a game that counts in the standings. And while it might appear a simple matter to teach, it's impossible to inject into a practice the emotion and sense of urgency and high stakes that are involved in an NFL regular season football game.
• On the subject of urgency and stakes, for most of the young players who squeeze onto the 53-man roster and then for all of them who get a helmet on game day, special teams will be their primary responsibility. And not only will they have to perform without having had the benefit of the live repetitions previous rookies were afforded during the preseason, many of them will find themselves as critical components of kick return/coverage units in the NFL after not having experienced much of that phase of the game in college because they were their teams' stars at that level.
• "I don't know if it's going to change the quality of play or the level of play, but I know it probably creates some anxiety for coaches who are used to a certain procedure or a certain process in order to get a group ready to play or get an individual ready to play," said Tomlin about the lack of preseason's effect on special teams. "We'll know less about some of the young men in particular who are on the coverage units and returns units in September, but it will be the same for all 32 teams. So from that standpoint it will be fair, and I'm just focusing on ways to provide capable men who've proven they belong so we can make sure we make the appropriate decisions in terms of not only who stays and who goes but also the division of labor within it."
PRESEASON FOOTBALL = SPARRING IN BOXING
• Let's pretend Colbert and Tomlin are correct in every single personnel decision they make during the process of getting an 80-man roster down to the required limit for the start of the regular season. No one who belongs was cut, and no one who was kept doesn't belong. Take that a step further and pretend every individual is in the best role for him to be able to help the team when the games start to count in the standings.
• Is he ready? Is it even possible for him to be ready with no preseason?
• "A guy wouldn't step into the ring without sufficient sparring, and there are equations regarding the number of rounds you can anticipate in a fight and the number of hours required to spar in preparation for those fights," said Tomlin. "I view football in a very similar way. I don't put an equation on it, but there are certain areas of play that transpire in stadiums that you can't duplicate, and one of those areas that's really significant is special teams. We can often times create football-like environments offensively and defensively in a practice setting, but the amount of grass and the amount of velocity and speed associated with it in the special teams area of play makes a lot of things that go on inside these preseason stadiums really significant."
• In 2020, it will be significantly missing.