One of the challenges for the Pittsburgh Steelers in doing training camp at Heinz Field and without fans is the step down in then environmental level that a crowd provides. This is a beneficial step, however, given the likelihood that there will be few or even no fans allowed in the stands during games.
According to Aditi Kinkhabwala, however, the team hasn’t had difficulty providing its own atmosphere. “I was quite impressed yesterday with the energy at Heinz Field”, she said on NFL Network on Tuesday. “No fans, no music, and yet, there was quite a bit of chatter. You could hear Mike Hilton trash talking. You could hear T.J. Watt. And Mike Tomlin really talked about how that is so vital to keep that energy up in what is really essentially an antiseptic environment”.
It helps that the Steelers have a roster full of personalities, and a roster of personalities that is governed by the ultimate personality, head coach Mike Tomlin. While former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw once referred to him derisively as a cheerleader, he is a great cheerleader for his players. It’s just that that’s far from his only function or value, but rather one of the many things at which he excels.
But when you have a roster full of guys like Hilton and Joe Haden and T.J. Watt, players who are more than willing to talk and keep things going and bring up the energy level in whatever setting happens to call for it, that sustained atmosphere is infectious, and important in this environment.
“We have guys like Watt, he is a very, very energetic, hype”, Haden told reporters on Tuesday. “Always screaming at each other out there. (Devin) Bush, Mike Hilton, he talks his trash, Minkah (Fitzpatrick) is just very passionate. We have a lot of dudes who are very hype, excited and energetic dudes. While we have been out here for camp, we are doing the same thing, we can hear each other, we can talk, everyone can make that communication”.
Facing the prospect of a season played without fans, it’s all the more important that teams are able to function independent of that external source of inspiration and motivation. Having a group that can hype itself up and inspire one another to rise to their highest collective level will be one of the hidden challenges of a season like this.
It’s unclear how NFL teams will manage this, whether they will try to insert artificial crowd noise or take some other sort of approach. Perhaps they will do something with the seating to make stadiums look less empty.
But at the end of the day, players will know that the only people they’re playing in front of are their own organization, their opponents, the officials, and the broadcast crew. It’s on themselves to keep the tempo up.