After offseason of ‘twists and turns,’ Steelers focus on Giants, Monday Night opener
That the Pittsburgh Steelers are playing their first game during the second week of September in a high-profile time slot is about the only thing that lends a semblance of normalcy to the 2020 opener.
For the fourth time in six years, the Steelers open in prime time. The 7:10 p.m. Monday kickoff against the New York Giants in the shadow of Manhattan represents the dawn of a new season, one that will be like no other.
No fans will fill any of the 82,500 seats at MetLife Stadium. Coaches and staff will wear masks. Postgame jersey exchanges? Banned.
The Steelers have deployed a modified travel schedule with mandatory adherence to myriad guidelines. They had a shortened training camp with no preseason games after a spring and summer with no in-person organized team activities or minicamp.
It arguably has been the most unique offseason in the NFL’s 101-year history, and it could be, at least in some ways, the unlikeliest of seasons.
“No doubt it has been challenging,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said. “There’s been lot different twists and turns and lot of protocols that we’ve had observe and learn about and understand.
“There are some very unusual set of circumstances. I think everybody in the country has experienced the same type of thing.”
NFL players, coaches and other essential employees are tested daily for the conronavirus. There is a “covid-19 list” for players affected by the disease. Social distancing is emphasized for all involved.
There’s plenty of adjustments, but it sure beats the alternative for those who make a living in the NFL. Between March and August, there were plenty of moments — such as April’s virtual NFL Draft — when the prospects of a season seemed dim.
“We have a group that is appreciative of the opportunity to play,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “I think that is one thing that the offseason has taught us all if we didn’t know that already. These opportunities are precious. They are not to be taken for granted. We are just really blessed to put football on.
“I have that perspective, and I’m sure out players do to as well. We are very passionate about what it is we do, and really, we are relived that we are getting close to get an opportunity to do it when there probably were times during the course of this development when we weren’t so sure.”
The NHL, NBA, MLB and college and high school football are proving sports can go on during a worldwide pandemic. It doesn’t mean things appear normal or there won’t be some strategic modifications.
For example, how will the lack of authentic crowd noise affect signaling plays or calling audibles at the line of scrimmage?
“It would have been nice to have a preseason game where we did travel and a preseason game where we played at home so we could work out all the kinks and stuff like that,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “There’s nothing we can do about it, so we have to play the hand we are dealt.”
Gameplanning also has been a challenge, particularly for the Steelers, who are facing an opponent with a new coaching staff. There’s no preseason game film, so it’s difficult to ascertain what rookies will play or what wrinkles to personnel packages or schemes might be in store.
But, as Tomlin has emphasized, the challenges associated with the 2020 season are equal for all 32 teams. Even if there are lumps, frustrations and inconveniences, it won’t mute the exhilaration that — somehow — the Steelers are playing football this season.
“Truly, during the virus and the whole situation when the pandemic came, there was a lot… thoughts, ‘Will we play? Will we be able to practice?’” outside linebacker Bud Dupree said last week.
“Once we came to camp and have been around Coach Tomlin and listening to him leading us in the right direction, preparing us for this type of environment that we will be playing in the new environment of the world, now, it’s starting to feel back real again. A lot of guys are gazing back in. You know we’re locking back in. We’re full focus.”
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Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .