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Quieter game-day atmospheres create communication challenges for Lions, NFL teams

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

During a typical season, NFL teams dedicate a portion of their week ahead of road games planning how to combat noise. They simulate it in practice, with sound systems blaring loud music, while devising hand signals and silent counts to counter the inability to clearly communicate verbally. 

This year, one where the COVID-19 pandemic has locked fans out of the majority of stadiums, and even in the instances where a small capacity percentage are allowed through the gates, the bigger issue for NFL teams is the absence of the traditional sounds of game day. 

The Lions played their season opener at Ford Field with no fans.

Sure, there's the ambient hum of league-approved crowd noise, modestly capped at 70 decibels, but that does little to conceal communication from the sidelines that isn't used to being heard. 

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"There will be new types of strategy involved," Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers said last week. "The metaphorical jazz hands will be the understanding that everything you say now is heard by the TV copy, as you've seen with some of these hot mics in golf or on the basketball court. There's just kind of a lot more information out there. There’s going to be a need to change code words probably more often than years past.”

Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell acknowledges the team has always scouted the broadcast of opponents' games, looking for any hidden advantage. But that's seemingly taken on a greater importance with how much more can be heard this season.

And while the extent of the impact remains unclear, given teams have only played one game, there's a healthy paranoia coursing through the minds of many players and coaching staffs. 

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"That's one of the things I think we're just beginning to learn, take a look at, even in-game situations," Bevell said. "You know, how much are they hearing? How much are they able to decipher? There were a couple times you could hear the Bears yelling from the sideline. Then, being able to go back to the TV copy — there's always coaches involved in going back to the TV copy — just seeing what you can glean from that. We're doing everything that we can to be able to help ourselves in those situations. And I think it's really a learning experience for all of us right now, with the way these games are going and the new low hum of the crowd noise. 

"We definitely have to be conscious of it, yes. Whether it's your signals, whether it's your calls, those kinds of things, you definitely have to be conscious of it."

At some level, Lions coach Matt Patricia is trying to downplay the differences. As he sees it, it's always been difficult to keep many schematic secrets at this level. 

"We get a lot of information from the TV, and we get a lot of information from previous years of just studying opponents and keeping track and records of different systems that everybody plays, whether it’s offense or defense," Patricia said. "A lot of the stuff, honestly, is pretty common knowledge. Before the game, what you’re trying to identify is what’s taking place in-game and if anything is switched."

Patricia also highlighted how a team can use your knowledge of their calls and signals against you. 

Using one of the smartest players to ever play the game as an example, Patricia noted how his defense knew one of Peyton Manning's calls and took advantage of it early in a game, netting a tackle for a loss. But when Manning made the call again later in the contest, he had changed its meaning and found his tight end across the middle of the field for a big gain.

"I just think you understand the situations, that there’s communication out there, but you really have to look at all the other nuances that go along with it," Patricia said. "If you get a piece of communication say, ‘OK, here’s what I heard, but this guy is showing me this, or this formation is showing me that, or this set is usually this.’ You take it as what it is, but you still have to go out and play and react at that standpoint."

And on that note, the Lions have no plans to keep their own calls and signals static week to week or even during the course of a game. Like a pitcher and catcher changing signs up when there's a runner on second base who could tip the batter to what's coming, the Lions will be prepared to switch things up as necessary. 

"There’s some communication on both sides of the ball that we make sure we keep moving, or change, or signal, or have different ways to get that out to everybody with the first run at it this past weekend," Patricia said. "Definitely was a situation where we can hear a lot more than what we anticipated before, so we have to do a good job of keeping that moving, from that standpoint."

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers