Steelers confident Roethlisberger can return to form in 2020

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, right, poses with the West Virginia Mountaineer Mascot before West Virginia's NCAA college basketball game against Kansas on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020, in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers are confident quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s surgically repaired right elbow will be ready to go in time for the 2020 regular season, so confident there are no plans to look around for a proven veteran backup just in case.

General manager Kevin Colbert said Thursday that “all signs are good” regarding Roethlisberger’s rehab from an elbow injury that sidelined the two-time Super Bowl winner in the middle of Week 2 and forced him to miss the remainder of 2019. The Steelers finished 8-8 without him while jockeying between second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph and rookie undrafted free agent Devlin Hodges.

While Colbert described Pittsburgh’s eventful season as “below the standards we set,” he credited the defense for taking a significant step forward and believes Roethlisberger’s return should help push the Steelers back into contention in the AFC.

Roethlisberger, who turns 38 in March, will travel to Los Angeles to be evaluated on Feb. 21. There is no specific timetable for when he will be cleared to start throwing again but Colbert stressed “optimistically he’s on schedule to return and maybe return better a Ben Roethlisberger than he was before the injury.”

Pittsburgh hung tough in Roethlisberger’s absence thanks in large part to a defense buoyed by the arrival of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick in a mid-September trade. The Steelers finished fifth in yards and points allowed but didn’t get enough help down the stretch. Pittsburgh scored 20 points or fewer in seven of its final eight games and managed just 30 points combined during a three-game skid to end the season, a losing streak that dropped them out of the playoff race.

While Colbert praised Rudolph and Hodges for doing a “representable” job while filling in, Colbert thinks a little bit of Roethlisberger could go a long way in 2020.

“I think our defense was really good last year and they kept us in a lot of games,” Colbert said. “We always talk about when Ben was healthy and we held a team to 21 points, his record over the course of his career is 121-20.”

The Steelers went 7-3 when keeping opponents under that mark in 2019, but two of the losses came in Weeks 15 and 16 against Buffalo and the New York Jets as the charismatic Hodges became increasingly ineffective.

Colbert, however, was quick to spread blame all around. The offensive line struggled to create running room and third-year back James Conner couldn’t seem to stay on the field. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster also dealt with injuries as his numbers took a steep drop with Roethlisberger out.

Both Conner and Smith-Schuster are about to enter the final years of their rookie contracts. Smith-Schuster is likely to be approached about a new deal, while Colbert indicated the team needs to see more from Conner.

“We know there’s talent there,” Colbert said. “We hope James can regain it and if he’s healthy, there’s no reason (he can’t.)”

Colbert also faces a decision on what to do with outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who is coming off a breakout season in which he had a career-high 11 1/2 sacks while teaming up with T.J. Watt to become one of the best edge rush duos in the NFL.

Dupree is scheduled to become a free agent next month unless the Steelers place the franchise tag on him by March 10. While coach Mike Tomlin called finding a way to keep Dupree “a priority” Colbert took a more vague approach.

“We have a good idea about where things stand at this point, but don’t have concrete info as to whether or not we will tag,” Colbert said.

Pittsburgh heads into the draft without a first-round pick for the first time since 1968 after sending it to Miami for Fitzpatrick. Colbert has zero second thoughts on the decision, not after Fitzpatrick was selected as an All-Pro following a season in which he intercepted five passes and returned an interception and a fumble for touchdowns.

“He is our first-round pick as we enter 2020 because he’s still a young, ascending player,” Colbert said. “He came in his first game as a starter after one week of work and had an outstanding game I don’t think we’ve seen the best of Minkah yet.”

In a way, the same holds true for inside linebacker Ryan Shazier. Shazier continues to recover from spine stabilization surgery in December, 2017. His contract expires next month, but Colbert said he’s seen “significant improvement” from Shazier over the past 12 months. While Shazier’s career remains on hold indefinitely, Colbert made it clear Shazier continues to have the club’s full support.

“When you’re dealing with Ryan Shazier, you’re not dealing with a timetable,” Colbert said. “You’re dealing with a young man that’s trying to regain his career. We’re always going to support that, whether it’s by a certain date or certain terms. There’s rules we have to live by, but again there’s no ceiling and there’s no time frame with Ryan Shazier’s possibility of returning.”