Steelers Beat Writer

Dale Lolley is a contributor to the Observer-Reporter and has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1993.

Everyone is focusing on how strange it will be to not have fans in football stadiums this fall. The general feeling, thus far, has been that it will hurt defenses, who usually feed off the energy of the crowd, more than offenses.

But we could see defenses have a pretty big advantage playing in empty stadiums. They’ll be able to hear everything. And time everything.

“One thing I think is going to be interesting to see is how they’re going to go about calling plays and the cadence,” Steelers defensive lineman Cam Heyward said Thursday on a Zoom call. “The smarter ones are going to pick up on that and use it to their advantage, especially in the division. If you really get a good grasp and hear a quarterback talking out loud without fan noise, you should have an advantage as a defense.”

What that could lead to is offenses running on silent counts and using hand signals to change plays – just like they would in a very loud stadium.

It’s another reason why veteran teams that have been together for longer periods will have an advantage coming out of this offseason shutdown. They’re more accustomed to running their offense under those conditions.

Some of the television networks have toyed with the idea of piping in crowd noise to give the audience at home the sounds they are accustomed to hearing – and perhaps cover up some of the bad language that could be picked up by on-field microphones.

As for in-stadium sound to provide a home-field advantage?

“I guess we’re just going to be playing ‘Renegade’ through the entire game,” Heyward joked.

Perhaps the Steelers can then also come up with a collage of screaming fans on the Jumbotron, replacing their usual footage of big hits.

  • Here we are, almost to July and the Pirates are still in first place.

Of course, it’s also no real surprise that Major League Baseball is the last of the professional sports leagues in the United States to come up with a plan to return to the field.

Baseball is, after all, the last holdout on a salary cap that would level the playing field – at least a little.

  • The NFL will announce its plans for the preseason and start of the regular season during the week of July 4. The bet here is that it won’t include the Hall of Fame Game, which is scheduled to be the Steelers against the Dallas Cowboys.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony could still take place Aug. 8. But it won’t have a game to go with it.

As Heyward said Thursday, why put players at risk for an additional game that doesn’t count?

  • Expect the preseason to be cut down to two games. The NFLPA is pushing for a universal starting date for camps of July 28. And any player or coach who arrives at that time and tests positive for coronavirus will be out of action for two weeks.

That would leave them out of commission right up to the date of Week 1 of the preseason.

And players haven’t had the workout or on-field practice time they normally would have gotten at this point. So, cutting the preseason back to two games makes some sense.

The real question is whether we’ll ever see more than two preseason games again? The NFL will go to a 17-game regular-season schedule next year. And if things work out with two preseason games, don’t be surprised to see the NFL stick with that formula.

That would allow the NFL to start its regular season a week earlier and stay roughly on the same schedule it now has.

  • NHL commissioner Gary Bettman swears the league’s 24-team “playoff” won’t be too gimmicky.

Sorry, but any playoff format that only leaves seven franchises at home while taking 24 to the postseason is just about the definition of a gimmick.

The only reason the NHL took as many teams as it did was to guarantee certain franchises got a spot at the table to ensure viewer interest.

That, in and of itself, is a gimmick.

  • Given the bickering that has gone on back and forth between MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and the player players union, Bettman might be right.

At this point, any kind of baseball season has to be considered a gimmick – just to save the game from itself.

Just in case all of the strikes and skyrocketing salaries hadn’t driven away enough fans, a summer without Major League Baseball just might do the trick to turn the rest away.

Good thinking, fellas.

Dale Lolley covers the Steelers for DKPittsburghSports.com and writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

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