Monday's training camp practice will mark the first occasion during this calendar year when the Steelers get a chance to assemble on the field in full pads and begin the serious work of getting themselves prepared for the 2020 NFL season. And for anyone who has tracked how this day usually unfolds under Mike Tomlin's leadership, there would be no need to consult a schedule, because it's always the same.
But there isn't and hasn't been a whole lot about the NFL that could qualify as typical dating back to mid-March, so the Steelers have been conducting training camp at Heinz Field instead of Saint Vincent College and the 16 days they have spent there so far have been a re-creation of the OTAs/minicamp cancelled by COVID-19.
"We're still transitioning into football, and there's a lot of significant work to be done in that regard," said Tomlin during a Zoom call today with Pittsburgh media. "More than anything, we're talking about culture-building things – how we practice, how we compete professionally, how we compete appropriately based on attire. This week, we're now in helmets and we're talking about some environment things that we value in the work that we can get done. When you're working in helmets there are some things you need to stay away from in terms of shoulder contact in an effort to keep everyone healthy and upright."
So far, so good on the "staying healthy" front. With the roster move made on Thursday morning to activate Jaylen Samuels from the reserve/COVID-19 list, the Steelers have no one on that list, they had no players choose to opt out of the 2020 NFL season, and as Tomlin said today about players having sustained any football-related injuries since July 28, "I'm not worried about any long-term work missed by anyone at this juncture."
Apparently that would point to an all-hands-on-deck, full-speed-ahead approach next Monday, and under typical circumstances the practice would look like this:
The first competitive period on the opening day of practice in pads would be backs-on-backers. Full speed, full contact. In the coaching vernacular, a tone-setter. Then a short time later, after some special teams work and some other assorted housekeeping, it would be live tackling. A series of running plays, and the back isn't down until he's tackled to the ground, just like in a real football game. As an aside, the look of astonishment on General Manager Kevin Colbert's face the first time Tomlin rolled that drill out is something that long will be a part of Saint Vincent College lore.
But maybe this time is going to be different. Maybe Monday ends up looking like a traditional first-day-in-pads camp practice, but Tomlin is not ready to rule out the possibility that it won't.
"That's our intent (to have a normal first-day-in-pads practice), but we're also willing to adjust based on what we see," said Tomlin about the schedule of events next Monday. "From a staff standpoint, we're very thoughtful about our long-term planning. Getting familiar with the level of conditioning these guys are in coming to us and getting a feel for their ability to take in and retain information that was delivered to them remotely are two of the key variables that will determine the pace in which we move. Those are our intentions, but we're willing to adjust based on what transpires between now and then, and that's really our mentality about this next month or so. We realize there are certain boxes that need to be checked between now and when we step into a stadium, but we also realize we might have to alter the pace of some of those intended plans, based on the readiness or lack thereof of the group. We're just acknowledging that and openly being willing to be flexible when appropriate."
Regardless of the form these upcoming practices in pads take, the players taking part in them would be wise to bring an understanding of how important they are during a run-up to roster cuts when there will be no preseason games.
"If there is (a player here who plays better than he practices), he won't get an opportunity to display it in this environment," said Tomlin, "so he better be a practice player."