It may not be the most significant component, but arguably the largest casualty we may see this year from the loss of the preseason will come in the third phase of the game—special teams. Everybody outside of the specialist positions who play on special teams have another designated position, one that they played in college. That is not the case for special teams.
It may look random to some, but everybody lined up on a kick coverage or return unit is placed in the position that the team has determined is most beneficial to the group. They don’t just line up wherever they feel like. And working through those positions during the preseason is key, because special teams plays are particularly hard to replicate in a practice setting.
Head coach Mike Tomlin spoke to this very fact earlier today and about how they are placing an emphasis on trying to figure this aspect of the game out over the next couple of weeks without the benefit of seeing the plays run inside of a game-like setting.
But it all comes within the broader context of getting to know your team all over again after the absence of an in-person offseason, especially with players who are in their first seasons with the team. “We are still familiarizing ourselves with some of the newer people and their skillsets relative to their positions and getting to know one another in that way”, Tomlin said.
“That includes the positioning of people, especially in the special teams area. That is something that really has our attention in this environment”, he continued. “With no preseason games, it is important that we make thoughtful decisions about the placement of people in the special teams capacity. But also, once we get them placed, the competitive aspect of practice and creating an environment where we can make some evaluations in that area is something that is at the front of our minds as we continue to get adjusted to what we are doing here”.
Making this even more significant is the fact that the Steelers have lost some significant components of their core special teams units, not just since last season, but over the past couple of seasons, including Tyler Matakevich, Anthony Chickillo, Johnny Holton (who was a replacement for Darrius Heyward-Bey), Roosevelt Nix, and Sean Davis.
Rookies always play a key role on special teams, and new faces like Chase Claypool, Alex Highsmith, Antoine Brooks, and potentially Anthony McFarland as well, will all be expected to put their hand in the pile in this area. Free agent signing Derek Watt will also be a critical component on special teams, and was an instrumental factor in his signing.
But as anybody who has been in a kitchen before knows, it’s one thing to have the ingredients, and another to know how to put them together. That’s the nature of turning a roster into a team, and the Steelers will not have all the tools that would normally be at their disposal this year in that assembling process.