Roethlisberger’s return makes Steelers major factor in 2020

PITTSBURGH STEELERS (8-8)

New faces: TE Eric Ebron, OL Stefen Wisniewski, DT Chris Wormley, FB Derek Watt, WR Chase Claypool, LB Alex Highsmith, RB Anthony MacFarland Jr., OL Kevin Dotson, S Antoine Brooks, DT Carlos Davis, wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard, quarterbacks coach Matt Canada.

Key losses: G Ramon Foster, DT Javon Hargrave, LB Tyler Matakevich, LB Mark Barron, FB Rosie Nix, LB Anthony Chickillo, CB Artie Burns, S Sean Davis, TE Nick Vannett, WR Johnny Holton,

Strengths: Defense that led league in sacks and turnovers while almost single-handedly keeping Steelers in playoff hunt into late December returns largely intact. Only major departure was lineman Javon Hargrave, but veteran Tyson Alualu should be capable replacement. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was sensation after being acquired in mid-September and leads secondary that should be among NFL’s best. Outside linebacker duo of TJ Watt and Bud Dupree combined for 26 sacks in 2019 and both have plenty to play for with new contracts on horizon.

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Weaknesses: Offense sputtered without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who is returning after missing most of last season with right elbow injury. He led NFL in passing in 2018 but will have offense that lacks big-time playmaker it had during wide receiver Antonio Brown’s prime. Running game went nowhere in 2019. Management has repeatedly espoused confidence in James Conner, it also didn’t rush to sign him to new deal. It feels very much like “prove it” season for both Conner and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, whose numbers tumbled in 2019 without Roethlisberger under center and Brown on other side of field drawing double coverage.

Pandemic Development: Continuity is practically way of life for Steelers. That should be benefit in 2020. Stability of coaching staff and nucleus that includes Roethlisberger, guard David DeCastro and defensive tackle Cam Heyward means Pittsburgh can focus on refining instead of figuring out new system or who is going to play where.

Fantasy Player To Watch: Ebron’s arrival gives 38-year-old Roethlisberger another big red-zone target. It’s role Ebron filled capably in 2018, when he caught career-high 13 touchdowns and made Pro Bowl while in Indianapolis. That year, however, looks like outlier in context of six-year career. He’s never caught more than five touchdowns in any other season. Still, he might be worth taking flyer on as second tight end.

Vegas Says: Win Super Bowl: 26/1. Over/under wins: 9 1/2.

Expectations: Steelers spent offseason retooling, not rebuilding, after missing playoffs for second straight year. They are pinning hopes on return to postseason on Roethlisberger’s surgically repaired right arm and defense that has potential to be dominant. Window to get it done before Roethlisberger retires is closing quickly. If Roethlisberger looks as he did in 2018 and defense plays as it did last fall, Steelers believe they should not only close gap on reigning AFC North champion Baltimore, but pass Lamar Jackson and Ravens entirely.

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