Steelers’ Mike Tomlin ‘excited’ about having Ben Roethlisberger back at QB

The Steelers have placed the entire weight of their 2020 ambitions on Ben Roethlisberger’s surgically repaired elbow, and coach Mike Tomlin said Thursday he expects it can hold up under all that stress.

“He’s doing great thus far. He’s in great physical condition. Rehabilitation, in regards to the injury itself, is going well. I hear nothing but positive reports from that standpoint,” Tomlin told fans on the Steelers Nation Unite Huddle call. “There have been no bumps in the road.”

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Roethlisberger missed the final 14 games of the 2019 season after injuring his right elbow. He had surgery Sept. 23 and was cleared to begin throwing footballs in mid-February.

“The fact that his injury and subsequent surgery happened so early in the season in 2019 is probably an asset to him and us as we push into 2020,” Tomlin said. “I think everybody’s comfortable with where things are. We’re excited about him and what he’s going to do for us this year.”

Roethlisberger led the NFL in passing yards in his last full season, 2018, but that team finished 9-6-1 and missed the playoffs. Without him, but with an improved defense, the Steelers used Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at quarterback, went 8-8 and missed again in 2019. They also signed former Broncos first-round pick Paxton Lynch to their practice squad, and he remains with the club.

The Steelers have thus far chosen not to add another quarterback, someone with more experience, as a backup to Roethlisberger. Tomlin did not totally rule out that possibility, though.

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“Mason Rudolph is our backup quarterback,” he said, allowing that competition in training camp can be used to establish if that hierarchy remains in place. “We have some candidates. Mason Rudolph really had an opportunity to gain some experience last year, and we expect him to be better. I think he expects to be better. We’re comfortable with the mix that we have right now, but not that we’re opposed to getting better at any position.”

Questions were posed to Tomlin — who is preparing for his 14th season as Steelers head coach — by fans from Idaho, Tennessee, New Jersey and Kentucky and a few other places far removed from Pittsburgh.

Among the items Tomlin addressed:

— How the coronavirus pandemic alters the challenge of preparing for the season: “We face a lot of challenges, but my mentality, and I think our group’s mentality, is going to be [that] they’re challenges that everyone faces . . . We’ve got to be light on our feet. There’s going to be a period of adjustment from a scheduling standpoint as we gain our footing in terms of logistically, what day-to-day looks like. But the entire National Football League will be going through it. I just think if we perform relatively better than others [then] we put ourselves in position to be that team at the end of the journey.”

— Whether he plans on a running back-by-committee: “I’m a featured runner-type guy by mentality. I think when you have a featured runner, it gives him an opportunity to drop a stake in the ground. It allows others to rally around him. It gives you a set of core, base run plays that he specializes in. But no question in today’s game a featured runner has to be supplemented . . . James (Conner) is a featured runner and a proven guy when healthy, and we’re excited about him getting back to health and displaying that in 2020.”

— What he thinks of wide receiver Chase Claypool, the Steelers’ second-round pick: “I’m not going to thoughtfully place him behind anybody. He might come in and carve out a significant role for himself. That’s the mentality I try to convey with everyone, all the time. I want Chase to know that there are no glass ceilings in terms of what he can do here and be for us . . . I like his play demeanor. He’s a sharp young man. I see no reason he can’t put himself into the mix. Quite frankly, we expect him to.”

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— Whether the Steelers need help at nose tackle: “I like the collection of guys that we have, that are capable of vying for that position . . . But that position won’t be manned in the ways that Casey Hampton manned it years ago. Today’s game doesn’t require or demand it in that way. There was a heck of a lot of base defense back when Casey played.”

— What he’s doing that’s different as result of the quarantine: “I’m binge-watching Netflix and so forth, and usually that is not my style. I’m on Joe Exotic like everybody else.”

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