The NFL refers to this week of training camp as the ramp-up period, where players can wear helmets and do more than just individual drills.
But the real work begins Monday when teams are allowed to have padded practices, one of 14 they are allowed before the start of the regular season. And Steelers coach Mike Tomlin intends to have training camp look like, well, a real training camp.
In other words, the contact drills that were traditionally on display the first day of padded practices at Latrobe will be on display at Heinz Field. Without the fans, of course.
“That’s our intent,” Tomlin said Thursday. “But we’re also willing to adjust based on what we see. We’re very thoughtful about our long-term planning or not doing so. Given the level of conditioning that these guys come to us in, getting a feel for their ability to take in and retain information that was delivered to them remotely, are two of the keys variables that determine the pace with which we move.
“Those are our intentions but we’re willing to adjust based on what transpires between now and a month. That’s our mentality about this the next month or so.”
And, with no preseason games, Tomlin said it is not the time for a player to hold something back for the regular season.
“If there is, he won’t get an opportunity to display it in this environment,” Tomlin said. “He better be a practice player.”
Tomlin should have a full roster of players at his disposal, too. Running back Jaylen Samuels was taken off the reserve/COVID-19 list Thursday, the last of the three players who found their way on to the list. He is not looking to rest guys at this juncture.
“I’m more concerned about putting them in situations where I can get to know them and evaluate them and see them compete than I am worried about preservation at this time,” Tomlin said.
Tomlin said one of the top priorities has been how he will structure his special teams and see which players are capable of handling the assignment — a task made especially difficult with no preseason games to evaluate.
“That’s something that really has our attention in this environment,” he said. “With no preseason games, it’s really important that we make thoughtful decisions about placement of people in special teams. But also, once we get in place the competitive aspect of practice and creating an environment where we can make some evaluations in that area is something at the front of our minds.”
One player they won’t have to evaluate: fullback Derek Watt, T.J.’s brother and a special-teams standout. He was signed in free agency from the Los Angeles Chargers to replace Roosevelt Nix. Watt and former Steelers linebacker Tyler Matakevich tied for the NFL lead with 16 special-teams tackles in 2019.
“The known aspect of his game that was attractive to us was his high level of productivity in special teams,” Tomlin said. “Because we had an opportunity to play against his team last year we were also very respectful of his functional fullback skills.”
Guard David DeCastro said the other day the performance of the offense in 2019 was “pretty terrible” and the unit found ways to lose games. The Steelers scored only 10 offensive touchdowns in the final 10 games and were the only NFL team to never score at least 30 points in a game. Tomlin said he agreed with his Pro Bowl guard’s overall assessment.
“When you are on the outside looking in at the tournament that determines the eventual champion, then that does suck,” Tomlin said. “Our goals are clear each and every year, and that is to compete for and ultimately win a world championship. And when we are not in that conversation, we absolutely hate it.”