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Deciphering what is missing on the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers is no easy task

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The Pittsburgh Steelers have plenty of holes to fill, but filling those vacancies won’t be easy.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

For some reason, I have been thinking about the upcoming Pittsburgh Steelers offseason far more than I usually do. At this time of the year, when the Steelers aren’t playing anymore, I try to enjoy the last drop of NFL football before another grueling offseason. But this year I find my commute to work, and downtime reading and writing about the team, focused on what this team will look like in 2020.

Sure, there are holes on the roster, but how the team fills these holes is anything but easy.

Let’s get something out of the way right out of the gate. I don’t see many holes on the defense of the Steelers entering next year. I believe Bud Dupree will be back in some form or fashion, I’m predicting the franchise tag, which means the majority of their team needs would be in the form of depth at positions like safety.

The offense, on the other hand, is a completely different story.

You want to talk about James Conner and the running back situation? Go right ahead, but the biggest elephant in the room is none other than Ben Roethlisberger. Everyone loves to poke fun at Roethlisberger’s beard, his body composition or even his desire to return to the game of football, but I don’t know if you can stress just how big of a deal his health is entering the offseason.

Mike Tomlin spoke about Roethlisberger’s timeline coming off his season-ending elbow surgery at his end of the season press conference, and the timing of when he goes for a checkup with the doctors who performed his procedure.

“I know that he is due for an update somewhere around the 1st of February, a checkup that will be probably significant in terms of mapping out what is next.” Tomlin told the media. “But that is a moving target, that date.”

When asked whether he would be ready for minicamp or OTAs, Tomlin said he will lean on the experts when it comes to those types of deadlines.

But think about that February 1st date. If Roethlisberger is not cleared to start throwing and rehabbing in a few weeks, and the date gets pushed back, you are close to the new league year in March. In other words, free agency will be heating up. Not knowing Ben Roethlisberger’s overall status can cast a cloud over the team’s plans for free agency, and even the 2020 NFL Draft.

Are you someone who doesn’t think Roethlisberger’s injury is that big of a deal? That the timeline doesn’t really matter? Say what you want about Roethlisberger’s play in Weeks 1 and 2 of 2019, and think about what fans had to endure with both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges.

This team needs Roethlisberger back if they want to contend, and if he isn’t ready they need a better contingent plan.

We can debate what they do at the tight end position with Vance McDonald’s club option coming up soon. We can discuss how the team should handle James Conner, Kerrith Whyte Jr., Benny Snell Jr. and Jaylen Samuels. Talk of cap casualties like Ramon Foster and the potential return of B.J. Finney will continue to run rampant.

But it all doesn’t mean a thing if you don’t have a quarterback.

Monday I wrote an article based on Jeremy Fowler’s ESPN+ article on the Steelers just needing a few “tweaks” to be considered a contender. Fowler is right, the Steelers do just need a few tweaks, but the tweaks they need start and end with No. 7. And when I mention No. 7, it is everything about Roethlisberger’s potential return. His rehab, his progression and whether he will be ready to be under center when training camp rolls around.

What is missing on the 2020 Steelers team? A quarterback, and Ben Roethlisberger’s cloudy timeline for return doesn’t make deciphering this any easier. Best case scenario is Roethlisberger gets a clean bill of health and starts throwing and rehabbing in February. This would give the team ample time to evaluate the health and readiness of their franchise quarterback. Worst case scenario is the date for Roethlisberger’s rehab continues to get pushed back and the team is left handcuffed not knowing what the future holds for the future Hall of Fame quarterback.

Football is a team game, but without Roethlisberger this Steelers team is far from a finished product, 2019 proved that.