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Excited about team’s chances, Roethlisberger is back for more

PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger explored all of his options last winter while his surgically repaired right elbow healed.

He could have walked off into the sunset with his wife and three children and not endured a lengthy and not particularly fun rehab.

With two Super Bowl rings stashed away somewhere and a reputation as one of the toughest quarterbacks of his — or any — generation, Roethlisberger’s legacy is already secure.

Yet Roethlisberger pressed forward as his 38th birthday neared, not so much out of ego or obligation but a sense of opportunity. He watched while Pittsburgh’s defense nearly helped the Steelers sneak into the postseason without him. It was all the proof he needed to realize how close the team he’s led for the better part of two decades is ready to contend once again.

“I just didn’t feel like I was done playing football,” he said in the early stages of his 17th training camp. “I really felt that I wanted to come back. I was excited about this team, and I just didn’t feel like I was, and I don’t feel like I’m done playing football yet.”

Good, because the Steelers are banking on Roethlisberger’s return to the form he showed when he won the NFL passing title in 2018 as the linchpin of their approach to 2020.

Rather than point toward the post-Roethlisberger era, they instead addressed what they viewed as shortcomings in hopes of chasing down defending AFC North champion Baltimore.

Tight end Eric Ebron was brought in to provide another red-zone target. Wide receiver Chase Claypool arrived in the second round of the draft with an eye on giving Roethlisberger a playmaker on the outside the team lacked last season after shipping Antonio Brown to Oakland.

The defense that led the NFL in sacks and turnovers in 2019 while finishing fifth overall remains largely intact. A little offense could go a long, long way.

A lot of offense could take the Steelers to a place they haven’t been since 2010, a place that has remained the metric by which the franchise has judged itself for half a century and counting.

“I think we are going to be a great team,” said Minkah Fitzpatrick, an All-Pro after landing in Pittsburgh via a mid-September trade with Miami. “Even though we do have those guys back, we still want to do what we did last year if not even better.”

The clock is ticking.

RIGHT PLACE, RIGHT TIME?: The Steelers are banking on relatively unproven commodities Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor to take over at right tackle. Matt Feiler played capably at that spot last season but was shifted to left guard following Ramon Foster’s retirement. Both Banner (6-foot-8, 360 pounds) and Okorafor (6-6, 320) have the size necessary. The team is banking on them having the smarts and agility to help the line bounce back after a subpar 2019, when defenses stacked the line of scrimmage in an attempt to rattle backup quarterbacks Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges.

EASY E: Ebron enters his sixth season in the NFL as a bit of a wild card. He caught 13 touchdowns from Andrew Luck in Indianapolis in 2018 but his numbers dipped last season following Luck’s abrupt retirement and he ended the year on injured reserve with ankle problems. He’s been a very vocal addition to practice — where his near-constant jawing during warmups reverberates throughout Heinz Field — and believes he and Vance McDonald can become one of the most potent tight end tandems in the league. “I believe two-tight end sets are dominant if you have two really good tight ends, and I believe we do,” Ebron said. “I just look forward to making Ben’s job a lot easier, making our offense’s job a lot easier.”

PROVE IT: Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and running back James Conner reached the Pro Bowl in 2018. Now they enter their fourth seasons in the league potentially playing for their jobs. Both are entering the final year of their rookie deals and while the Steelers have been supportive of their work, neither has received a contract extension. Throw in the fact Pittsburgh used draft picks to fortify both positions and the writing might be on the wall for the highly popular duo, bringing an additional layer of urgency.

THIS BUD’S FOR WHO?: The Steelers opted not to offer outside linebacker Bud Dupree an extension in 2019, and he responded with the finest season of his career by racking up 11 1/2 sacks. The team placed the franchise tag on Dupree to keep him opposite Pro Bowler T.J. Watt but the pressure will be on Dupree to prove his breakout performance wasn’t a fluke.

OH, CANADA: Pittsburgh hired Matt Canada to serve as the quarterbacks coach, relieving offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner of the dual role he’d held for the past two seasons. Canada’s main job will be to help develop backups Rudolph, Hodges and Paxton Lynch, a pretty important gig considering that for all the optimism surrounding Roethlisberger, his status remains very much a throw-by-throw proposition. Roethlisberger was fine last year … until he wasn’t. If for some reason he gets sidelined again, a positive step forward by Rudolph will be necessary if the Steelers are going to reach the playoffs.

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