The Steelers offseason is in full swing, even if much of it is being done in a virtual world. The 2020 schedule came out last week, the team held their virtual rookie minicamp, and now players are taking part in virtual meetings, with rookies to veterans all working together with their position coaches via zoom.
It's not a normal offseason in the football world, but Coach Mike Tomlin told fans during the Steelers Nation Unite Huddle that they are moving forward with all teams in the NFL in the same boat.
"We face a lot of challenges, my mentality, and the group mentality is going to be they are challenges that everyone faces," said Tomlin. "From that standpoint it's going to be fair and the playing field is going to be level. We have to be light on our feet. There is going to be a period of adjustment from a scheduling standpoint as we gain our footing in terms of logistics of what day-to-day looks like and things of that nature.
"The entire National Football League will be going through it and I just think if we perform relatively better than others we put ourselves in position to be that team at the end of the journey. That is always our mentality regarding the start of a season."
The release of the schedule, with the Steelers opening the regular season against the New York Giants on Monday Night Football on Sept. 14, helps Tomlin with the planning and preparation.
"There was some angst before the schedule came out in terms of what the calendar looks like," said Tomlin. "Every year I build my calendar backwards from opening day. As long as I have an opening date, I have a framework in which to begin some planning. I just need to be light on my feet and understand some adjustments will be involved from there.
"We have a point from which to begin. The regular season and preseason schedule. We build our calendar back from that. We are excited about doing it. It's going to look different for us this year logistically in a lot of ways I am sure. That could be said for all of us. We are just ready to do it better than those we compete against."
Tomlin took questions from fans across the country, as well as some submitted online, and the topics ranged from the health of Ben Roethlisberger and Stephon Tuitt, to the depth chart at quarterback and much more.
More from Tomlin:
On Roethlisberger's health:
"He is doing great thus far. He is in great physical condition. Rehabilitation in regard to the injury itself is going well. I hear nothing but positive reports from that standpoint. There have been no bumps in the road. The fact that the injury and subsequent surgery happened so early in the season in 2019 is probably an asset to him and to us as we push into 2020. I think everybody is comfortable with where things are. We're excited about him and what he is going to do for us this year."
On what the depth chart looks like at quarterback:
"We like to sort those things out through competition. As we are positioned today, Mason Rudolph is our backup quarterback. We have some capable guys who have logged some time and gained some interest for obvious reasons vying for the other spots. (Devlin) Hodges played some last year because of obvious circumstances. We were able to pick up Paxton Lynch, who is a former first rounder in the midst of the journey last year. We have some candidates. Mason Rudolph had an opportunity to gain some experience last year. We expect him to be better. He expects to be better. We are comfortable with the mix we have right now, not that we are opposed to get better at any position as we proceed if it makes sense to us."
* On if he started any new hobbies during quarantine:*
"I am binge watching Netflix and usually that is not my style. I am on 'Joe Exotic' like everybody else."
On how he decides to use personnel groups each week and how the tight ends work into that, especially with the addition of Eric Ebron:
"The personnel packages week-to-week have a lot to do with what we desire to be that week based on those available to us, but also some opponent related things relative to match up. Some weeks, if we have two tight ends available or three tight ends available, and from a matchup standpoint it creates issues for our opponents, then you might see that personnel group rise that week. And then it might be two or three subsequent weeks that it might not be as big because the variables aren't in play. That is why it's important you have quality depth and good players all around. You know that injury and so forth are part of the game and people are going to miss time.
"Number two you want to be able to create unique personnel groups and matchups for those you compete against. We are excited about having Ebron in the mix. We know that he and Vance McDonald are the type of duo that are capable of creating issues for people with their talent. We are excited about having those guys. We will sort out the usage of those guys week-to-week. We know invariably those guys and others have a chance to really make us versatile and make us an issue for those who we play against."
On the inside linebacker position and finding someone to replace Ryan Shazier and the cornerback position and others stepping up:
"We took Devin Bush a year ago and as a 20-year old he logged a bunch of snaps for us. We feel good about the overall trajectory of his play. Sometimes when you feel like you have a need it doesn't necessarily mean going out and getting a new component. It's about the improvement of the component you have. We are excited about him taking a significant step between year one and year two as a quality inside linebacker for us, being an all situations type player. To be the type of player to play to a Pro Bowl caliber level the way Ryan Shazier did.
"We are really excited about (cornerback) Justin Layne in the same way. He was a rookie a year ago. Was inactive early on. Carved out a role for himself as a special teamer. He is going through the natural participation, developmental process. Really distinguished himself in a positive way in a practice setting over the second half of the year. Those are usually signs a guy is going to take a step in his second year. We are exited about him and his development and what he can bring to us at the cornerback position, just as like we are excited about the development of Devin Bush and him taking a significant step off a solid rookie campaign he gave us at linebacker."
* On who Chase Claypool will begin behind on the depth chart, guys such as JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and James Washington:*
"I am not going to thoughtfully place him behind anybody. He might come in and carve out a significant role for himself. That is just the mentality I try to convey all of the time with everyone. I want Chase to know there aren't any glass ceilings in terms of what he can do and be for us, not only this year but over the course of his career. He'll be given the opportunity to let his talents show. The other guys you mentioned are talented people as well. Thus the competition. Competition makes us all better and whole and puts us in position to be a good unit and us a good team. He has talent, no question. I like his play demeanor. He is a sharp young man. I see no reason why he can't put himself in the mix and quite frankly we expect him to."**
On if he expects the running back position to be by committee with the group they have, which includes the addition of Anthony McFarland, or will James Conner be the featured runner:**
"I'm a feature runner type guy by mentality. I think that if you have a featured runner it gives them an opportunity to drop a stake in the ground and allows others to rally around him. It gives you a set of core phase run plays that he specializes in and you find a rhythm in that way. But no question in today's game that a feature runner needs to be supplemented and supplemented by guys who are capable of doing similar things in case he misses time, but also supplemented by guys who are capable of doing different things to maybe challenge the defense in different ways and I think that's just the makeup of our group right now.
"James is a feature runner and a proven guy when healthy and we're excited about him getting back to health and displaying that in 2020. Benny Snell is a guy who plays with a physical style in a similar manner as James and might be capable of being a James-type guy if James is unavailable. As you mentioned we're excited about McFarland, who brings a different component. He's got catch quickness and is quick to speed and is capable of producing big plays in open spaces. We like the collection of guys we have in the group.
"I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the addition of Derek Watt at the fullback position. We're excited about him. We're excited about what the group is going to do largely, but usually when it's doing well it's because you have a lead dog out front and that guy is the featured runner."
On Stephon Tuitt's health:
"Stephon is doing really well. Like I mentioned with Ben earlier, his injury occurred at the early portion of the season. As miserable as it made him and us, in 2019, it kind of bodes well for readiness in 2020. We expect Stephon to be ready to go. We are excited to have him and his talents back."
On the situation at nose tackle and if there is another guy out there like Casey Hampton:
"I like the collection of guys we have who are capable of vying for the position. Dan McCullers has been the backup at the position for a number of years. We drafted a young man, (Carlos) Davis out of Nebraska, who has some talent in that area. Tyson Alualu is a veteran guy who is position flexible, so he is capable in that area.
"That position won't be manned in the way Casey Hampton manned it years ago. As a matter of fact, today's game doesn't require that you man it in that way. It was a heck of a lot more base defense back when Casey played. Guys like him were really significant. The amount of running the football in the league at that time and more important the style of running, the double teams and so forth. It made guys like Casey not only necessary, but significant. That guy was a perennial Pro Bowler for us and really a catalyst for a great defense. I just think it's made up a little differently these days. There is probably more of a premium on those who rush the passer. As much as we love Hamp, we know that pass rushing was not his forte."