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: Will we see more big returns on special teams around the league due to teams’ lack of opportunity to work on coverage as much as in a normal offseason?
While there is little that they could do about it, the reality is that the NFL is preparing to enter a season in which there will be fairly minimal time to prepare for it, most especially with the absence of a preseason. One would naturally be inclined to think that the end result will be sloppier play to start out than usual.
It has already become accepted that teams have to play their way into basically an acceptable product. Many starters play very little or not at all during the preseason, for example, so when a player performs well in an opener, we’re already saying that he’s in ‘midseason form’.
While it’s hard enough to simulate offense and defense without the benefit of a preseason, that task is much more complicated when it comes to special teams. Working out blocking for return units is one thing, but it’s even more difficult to get 11 players aligned into a coverage unit.
I find myself wondering if the byproduct of this offseason will be a net increase in positive returns, both in the punting and kicking game, around the league this year, at least at the start of the season, as a result of the fact that coverage units will not be properly prepared, with rookies playing a central role.