The Pittsburgh Steelers are now training camp, following the most unique offseason in the NFL since at least World War II. While it didn’t involve a player lockout, teams still did not have physical access to their players, though they were at least able to meet with them virtually.
Even training camp will look much different from the norm, and a big part of that will be the fact that there will be no games along the way to prepare for. There will be no preseason played in 2020, so the first time the Steelers take the field in 2020 will be for the season opener against the New York Giants.
Before we get there, however, there are a number of issues that are outstanding on this team, and this year’s edition of training camp will not provide the level of thoroughness that teams are normally used to in trying to answer those questions.
Questions like, what is the starting offensive line going to look like? Will it include Zach Banner or Chukwuma Okorafor? Who will be the primary nose tackle? How will Ben Roethlisberger look—and the other quarterbacks as well? Now, we even have questions about whether or not players will be in quarantine.
These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.
Question: How great a burden is on the shoulders of Ike Hilliard this season to develop a young wide receiver group with the limitations of the offseason in place?
While Ike Hilliard is new neither to the wide receiver position nor the responsibility of coaching young wide receivers, he is new to the Steelers, to this group of wide receivers, and, as is everybody else, to the challenges of coaching the game of football through a pandemic, and the restrictions that come along with it.
Though the Steelers every year view themselves as a team in a championship window, they have to know that the 2020 season is as good an opportunity as any to make a competitive run. With the defense that they’ve put together and a significant pool of resources devoted into the skill positions, it’s up to the health and performance of Ben Roethlisberger and of the coaching of those skill groups to get the offense to where it needs to be to compete at the highest level.
Having a complementary ground game would be fantastic, of course, but the offense, as with nearly any in this era, runs through the passing game, and through its wide receivers. JuJu Smith-Schuster is accomplished, but with question marks. James Washington and Diontae Johnson are promising but developing. Chase Claypool, large, and physical, but unproven.
This is a position group that has seen three different men coach them during the regular season in the past three years. Hilliard is the fourth. What is his impact, and what does it need to be for this team to succeed, this year?