2020 is bringing a slew of challenges. For a coach, few bigger than evaluating the guys with few snaps missing out on an entire preseason. That reality is unprecedented. As far as I’m aware, the NFL has never gone without a preseason before. No exhibition games means little for guys like Joe Haden, Steven Nelson, even Terrell Edmunds, experienced players with plenty of Sunday snaps to go off of. But for guys like Justin Layne, Marcus Allen, and 6th round pick Antoine Brooks, those are crucial snaps lost.
As Mike Tomlin would say, no crying over spilled milk. And as Teryl Austin told reporters during a Tuesday Zoom meeting, the next best thing is to simulate the games during practice.
“The thing we will do with the young guys is you’ve got to put them in as many stressful situations in practice as possible and as many game-like situations as you can just to see how they react and kind of get an idea of what you’re going to get,” he said via the team website yesterday.
That won’t come until August 17th when teams are allowed to begin their 14 days of padded practice. If they’re anything like the practices at Latrobe, the Steelers will make them physical, high-intensity, and competitive. The Steelers are known for having some of the most intense camp practices around the league. Especially without a preseason to provide those opportunities, the need for that environment is heightened. And young guys like Layne and company need those reps.
“Obviously, the preseason games, you’ll miss those things, but there’s things that you can do to get a pretty good idea,” Austin went on to say. “I think even when you have a preseason, a lot of times you’ll see guys and they will show things in practice and when they get to the game those same things show up, good or bad. I think we can manufacture that.”
Layne is heading into his sophomore season, an NFL career that’s gotten off to a bumpy start. Thrown into the fire as a starter in Week 1 of the preseason last year, he predictably struggled. He didn’t play a single defensive snap the entire season and is an obvious backup to begin 2020. That’s not a bad thing though; he was raw coming out of Michigan State and it’s refreshing for a Steelers’ corner to get to sit and learn but no preseason certainly is a blow to his progress.
Safety also brings youth and inexperience behind the starters. Marcus Allen is heading into his third year but has hardly seen the field, even on special teams, his first two seasons. It’s fair to say this year is make or break for him. And sixth rounder Antoine Brooks Jr. is an obviously unknown. His skillset is similar to Allen, a box safety who can thump against the run and on paper, looks strong on special teams, but there won’t be a summer for him to begin to show that. But I’m betting his name comes up a few times during camp for throwing his body around.
The obvious statement is every team is dealing with the same issue. Pittsburgh holds the advantage for not only having a veteran team but a unit, and definitely a secondary, almost entirely unchanged from a year ago. They’re not counting on any new faces or rookies to make a Day One impact.