Like it or not, you’re going to hear a lot about special teams, and the importance of young players and reserves having the ability to play special teams, over the course of the next several days until the initial 53-man roster is set. It’s not just the Pittsburgh Steelers, either. Every team prioritizes special teams among their reserves, because, well, somebody’s got to do it.
And the preseason is the critical component for evaluating special teams, one of the reasons that head coach Mike Tomlin would hate to see it reduced. It’s why he only sparsely plays his ‘starters’ on special teams except in the third preseason game. He needs to be able to evaluate everybody else pushing for those roles.
Before every game, Tomlin sits down with Bob Labriola for a brief interview. Prior to Sunday’s game, one of the questions that Labriola asked him was about the importance of the preseason, and it’s no surprise that special teams was the primary topic that he brought up.
As you probably know by now, he likes his metaphors, and he likened special teams (as he does hitting in training camp) to sparring before a boxing match. He said that there are equations to determine how much sparring you would need to get in before a match of a certain length.
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.
Really significant. That’s why it’s significant when there’s a player on the fringes of the roster, at a position that typically plays special teams, who is not playing it. And that’s why so many people who understand this process well are not putting a player like Tuzar Skipper on their roster (I myself bucked that trend earlier today, and there’s an excellent chance that I’ll be wrong).
I realize all this is going to accomplish is to spur yet another round of “I would rather keep a player with upside who can play offense/defense someday”, but we know quite well that this is not how it works in reality. You need consistent and reliable players who know what they’re doing and who work in unison with one another.
“I just believe these guys need time to grow and develop. These guys are chasing their dreams”, Tomlin went on. “There’s a difference between the college game and the professional game. There are different rules. There are different unwritten rules. There are different nuances from an understanding standpoint”.
“I think if we really want to be inclusive and give guys an opportunity to live out their dreams and state a case for themselves”, he continued, “the more opportunities we give them to gain that learning and to display that learning, the better it is for all of us”.
And for the ones who are actually fighting for a roster spot, those opportunities are going to be earned, and found, on special teams.