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Better, worse or the same? With Big Ben, Steelers hope offense returns to 2018 form

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How will Big Ben's return affect the Steelers' win total? (1:59)

Joe Fortenbaugh and Doug Kezirian disagree on how Ben Roethlisberger's return will affect the Steelers' playoff prospects and win totals. (1:59)

The central question for the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense in 2020 is simple.

Will they be better, worse or the same as the product they put on the field in 2019?

The hope, of course, is to look more like the high-flying 2018 offense than the stagnant 2019 unit.

The Steelers' offense ranked 30th in yards per game and 27th in points per game a season ago. The team has never ranked lower in yards per game and has only finished lower in points per game once when it checked in at 28th in 1998.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's return should solve some of those problems, but only if his September elbow surgery restores him to his 2018 form. The 2019 version of Roethlisberger took the field for only six quarters, completing 56% of his attempts for 351 yards and an interception before getting injured.

Whatever form Roethlisberger takes when he returns will likely be an upgrade, but can it also elevate the play of his teammates?

Quarterbacks

Additions: None.

Losses: None.

Returners: Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph, Devlin Hodges, Paxton Lynch, J.T. Barrett.

Better, worse or the same? Better.

This one is easy -- and it's the position on which the entire season hinges. A year ago, the Steelers managed a .500 season without their future Hall of Fame quarterback. This season, all signs point to a Roethlisberger-led rebound.

Even coming off a season-ending elbow injury and subsequent surgery, the 38-year-old is an instant upgrade to the tandem of Rudolph and Hodges.

A year ago, the Steelers ranked 31st in total QBR (30.8) and in passing yards per game (186.3). Roethlisberger, meanwhile, has never had a regular season QBR below 47.1 when he has played a full season, and he has never had a season averaging less than 187 passing yards per game. Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing yards per game three times in the past six seasons.

Of course, Roethlisberger is coming back to a team that's significantly different from the one from two seasons ago when he led the NFL in passing. He'll have to get comfortable with new offensive weapons such as Diontae Johnson, a second-year receiver who didn't start showing his full potential until late in his rookie season, and tight end Eric Ebron, a free-agent addition. Roethlisberger led some throwing sessions with teammates, including Ryan Switzer, James Conner and JuJu Smith-Schuster earlier in the summer, but he's missing the time at OTAs and minicamp to build that on-field chemistry with the rest of his teammates.

Even without a first-hand look at his quarterback's rehab, coach Mike Tomlin believes Roethlisberger will be ready.

"He is comfortable and pleased with where he is," Tomlin said in a late-June Zoom call. "Some of the people that have had the opportunity to work out with him have been impressed and pleased with where he is. The medical experts are comfortable with where he is in the rehabilitation process and his overall readiness for 2020. All of those things being said, I am comfortable with where he is."

Wide receivers

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Additions: Chase Claypool (second-round pick), Saeed Blacknall (XFL), Anthony Johnson (free agent).

Losses: Donte Moncrief (cut midseason).

Returners: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, James Washington, Ryan Switzer, Deon Cain, Amara Darboh, Quadree Henderson.

Better, worse or the same? Better.

Life without Antonio Brown wasn't an easy transition for the Steelers' wide receivers last season. Smith-Schuster struggled as the new No. 1 receiver, but it wasn't entirely his fault. For the first time in his career, Smith-Schuster was hindered by lingering foot and knee injuries that caused him to miss four games. Even before that, though, his production was down because a true No. 2 threat failed to emerge.

The Moncrief experiment failed miserably, and the younger receivers didn't start to emerge until later in the season. Because there wasn't a consistent threat beyond Smith-Schuster, defenses often blanketed the third-year receiver and forced the younger guys to make plays on throws from unproven quarterbacks. The results weren't great. The Steelers receivers scored just 11 touchdowns last season -- four fewer than Brown scored on his own a year before.

But that should change with the return of Roethlisberger and the addition of second-round pick Claypool and Ebron. Those additional receiving threats, coupled with Roethlisberger's return and the development of Johnson should elevate the wide receivers as a whole. With Claypool in the mix, Smith-Schuster can return to playing primarily in the slot, where he saw most of his success in 2018.

Running backs/Fullbacks

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Additions: Anthony McFarland Jr (fourth-round draft pick), Derek Watt (free agent).

Losses: Roosevelt Nix.

Returners: James Conner, Jaylen Samuels, Benny Snell, Trey Edmunds, Kerrith Whyte, Ralph Webb.

Better, worse or the same? Better.

It won't take much for the running backs to have a better season than they had last year. The Steelers averaged 90.4 rushing yards per game. James Conner, who had a Pro Bowl season in 2018, was hampered by a series of acute injuries that cost him six games. Though the Steelers still counted Conner as their featured runner, he often wasn't able to shoulder a workhorse load. Instead, the Steelers rotated running backs, using everyone from 2018 draft pick Benny Snell to 2017 selection Samuels to former practice squad guys such as Edmunds and Whyte.

This year, though, Conner is fully healthy and playing in the final year of his contract. The Steelers want to use him as the featured runner again, and that plan won't change unless Conner sustains more injuries.

"James is a featured guy and proven runner when healthy," Tomlin said. "We're excited about him getting back to health and displaying that in 2020."

The Steelers also added McFarland in the draft, but he'll be used as a change-of-pace back, injecting speed into a group more known for a bruising, physical running style.

Tight ends

Additions: Eric Ebron (free agent)

Losses: None

Returners: Vance McDonald, Zach Gentry, Kevin Rader, Christian Scotland-Williamson

Better, worse or the same? Better

The crown jewel of the Steelers' free-agency period is a big boost to this position group. Adding Ebron gives Roethlisberger a red zone target and a big body over the middle. Though he was injured last season and his production dropped, Ebron has shown an ability to be a playmaker as a hybrid receiver-tight end. In 2018, he had a whopping 13 receiving touchdowns along with 750 receiving yards. Ebron is also one of only six tight ends to score more than 20 red zone touchdowns in the past five seasons -- something the Steelers badly need after posting the worst red zone scoring percentage in the NFL last season.

"When he was healthy, he really did some nice things, especially the year he had," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said, referencing Ebron's 2018 Pro Bowl season. "He had Andrew Luck playing with him. There's definitely athleticism, there's red zone production, there's run after the catch. He's really a premier kind of receiving tight end for this league when he's healthy."

His addition will also help elevate the play of McDonald, who was underutilized with just 273 receiving yards last season. The tandem will give the Steelers the opportunity to run more two-TE sets that maximize the usage of both players.

Offensive line

Additions: Kevin Dotson (fourth-round pick), Christian Montano (undrafted free agent), Jarron Jones (XFL), Stefen Wisniewski (free agent), Anthony Coyle (XFL), John Keenoy (XFL).

Losses: Ramon Foster, B.J. Finney.

Returners: David DeCastro, Matt Feiler, Alejandro Villanueva, Maurkice Pouncey, Chukwuma Okorafor, Zach Banner, Christian DiLauro, Derwin Gray, J.C. Hassenauer.

Better, worse or the same? Worse.

The offensive line is facing the most change from the 2019 to the 2020 season. The Steelers lost left guard Foster to retirement, and they'll also be without versatile backup Finney, who departed in free agency. Finney was key for the Steelers last season, filling in at center for Pouncey during the veteran's two-game suspension and season-ending knee injury. The position group is worse without those guys -- even if Foster was near the end of his career last season. The Steelers will badly miss his leadership, and they'll miss Finney's flexibility.

Under normal circumstances, this group could wind up being the same or better with the replacements in the starting lineup and with free-agent addition Wisniewski as the top backup, but the abbreviated offseason kept the offensive line from working together as much as they would have in a regular offseason. Those reps are huge for a unit that depends on cohesion and consistency, and the lack of them could result in a step back from last year.

The Steelers plan to begin the search for Foster's replacement with Feiler, giving the right tackle the first snaps at Foster's vacated left guard spot. That leaves a two-man competition for Feiler's spot between Okorafor and Banner, who gained traction as a fan favorite last season for his usage in the jumbo package. For the typically tight-lipped Tomlin, revealing that bit of news in the final availability of the virtual offseason was unusual for him.

"We don't have time to mess around in this environment, guys," Tomlin said. "We lost 900 snaps like everybody did with the virtual offseason. You've got to give the benefit of the doubt to people who have been here at least as a basis to begin. That's the way we are going to begin the training camp process, knowing that process is going to be an abbreviated one.

"Those that have experience, have been a part of this thing, are probably going to have a leg up just as a basis to begin. We are going to start with Matt Feiler at left guard. Both young tackles in Zach Banner and Chuks [Okorafor] have been here and have played. The combination of those guys provides the most experience for us, and that's probably the appropriate place to begin."

Wisniewski, a two-time Super Bowl champion, most recently with the Kansas City Chiefs last season, is a candidate to fill Finney's versatile role or one of the starting jobs. But the curbed offseason puts him at a disadvantage.