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NFL countdown: Ben Roethlisberger returns for Steelers

This is the 25th in a series of 32 NFL team betting previews in 32 days leading up to the league’s Sept. 10 season opener. We’ll count down the teams from the lowest season win total to the highest.

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ reason for optimism is simple. They won eight games last season without injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and now he’s back.

Westgate sportsbook vice president of risk Ed Salmons is more blunt.

“The Steelers had some of the worst QB play in the last 10 years and went 8-8,” he said.

Roethlisberger, a two-time Super Bowl champion, suffered a season-ending elbow injury in a Week 2 loss to Seattle that dropped Pittsburgh to 0-2.

For the rest of the season, the Steelers had either Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges under center, and it wasn’t pretty. They combined to throw for 2,828 yards with 18 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.

“(Coach Mike) Tomlin couldn’t let the quarterbacks throw more than a 4-yard pass,” Salmons said.

Nevertheless, the Steelers went 8-6 with Rudolph and Hodges, though they lost three straight to end the season, scoring only 10 points in each defeat.

Roethlisberger is 38, but he threw for a career-best 5,129 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2018. His return should also boost running back James Conner and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who struggled playing alongside Rudolph and Hodges. Conner managed only 464 yards on the ground (4.0 per carry) in 10 games, and Smith-Schuster had just 42 catches for 552 yards in 12 games.

There are no concerns on the other side of the ball after the defense largely dragged Pittsburgh to 8-8. The Steelers finished fifth in total defense, allowing 304.1 yards per game.

“I’m not worried about the defense,” Sunset Station sportsbook director Chuck Esposito said.

The Steelers haven’t finished worse than 8-8 in Tomlin’s 13 seasons and figure to be in the playoff mix again this season.

“Tomlin always seems to have the team competitive,” Esposito said.

Contact Jim Barnes at jbarnes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0277. Follow @JimBarnesLV on Twitter.

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