Rossi: Big Ben takes big step in maturing as leader

| Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, 9:48 p.m.

The Steelers had just finished their final exhibition game, which meant their Most Valuable Player was about to finish playing football for a couple of weeks. Le'Veon Bell, though, insisted there was no reason to worry about the offense while he was sitting out.

Bell nodded toward an empty locker stall that contained Ben Roethlisberger's clothes.

“That guy,” Bell said. “It doesn't matter who's in there, we'll follow No. 7.”

Seems obvious a team should follow its franchise quarterback. But through 11 seasons, it wasn't always obvious Roethlisberger was the Steeler the other Steelers wanted to follow.

In this recently completed season, Big Ben's 12th campaign, he offered his teammates no choice. Whenever he perceived an opportunity to be The Guy, he was that guy.

Often, the public was never the wiser. Sometimes neither were most of his teammates.

“Ben has been so great,” Mike Vick said a couple of days after leading the Steelers to an October win at San Diego in Roethlisberger's absence. “I don't know what I expected, to be honest. But my first day here, Ben came up to me and said, ‘Whatever you need, I'm your guy.' That really helped me relax, just hearing that from somebody who means what he does to this franchise.”

Words are easy, though. Leadership is always more about doing than saying.

Vick said Roethlisberger was instrumental in the Steelers tailoring the offense to his skills in the days between a disheartening home loss to the Baltimore Ravens and that thrilling win over the Chargers. Roethlisberger, unable to play because of a battered left knee, served as confidant to Vick and offensive coordinator Todd Haley during that time.

If something wasn't working, usually Roethlisberger was the one who first spoke up. He knew the offense better than Vick, and he knew best how to communicate with Haley.

Vick is a former franchise quarterback with the Atlanta Falcons, a role he called a double-edged sword.

“You're being watched in everything that you do,” he said. “I probably didn't pay enough attention to that when I was younger. I thought I could just go play.

“When I came here, I could see that Ben is aware of what he says and what he does. He's already given it a lot of thought. Whether he's giving an interview or talking to a receiver, nothing is by chance with Ben.”

Also not by chance has been Roethlisberger maturing into the leader only he can be.

His leadership style is different from those who first led him, former heart-and-soul Steelers such as Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward. Both said they always believed Roethlisberger would become The Guy, but both knew better than to expect an overnight transition from franchise quarterback to that guy.

It had nothing to do with Roethlisberger or his personality, really.

“When you talk about guys who are leaders, it's always there in them,” Bettis said last summer. “But I can honestly say, looking back, it was as much my teammates looking to me, as it was me looking to be the guy they looked at.

“What people need to understand about leaders is they emerge.”

Over the past few years, longtime former (Brett Keisel) and current (Heath Miller) teammates of Roethlisberger said they witnessed his leadership emerge behind closed doors. Then at the start of the Steelers' latest playoff run, everybody experienced Big Ben as the Big Leader.

A week before the Steelers' wild-card game at Cincinnati wasn't the first time Roethlisberger called out second-year receiver Martavis Bryant. In fact, his choice of words (“toughen up”) were not unfamiliar to any Steelers receivers.

All-Pro Antonio Brown said he has “heard it from Ben” during a practice. So said rookie Sammie Coates. Basically, every receiver who has dressed for a practice heard “that or something like that,” Darrius Heyward-Bey said.

“It's not unusual at all. That's just Ben,” Heyward-Bey said. “That's the way we like him, the way we need him to be.

“People can focus on something he says, but people don't see some of the little things. Those little things are what Ben's great at. They're what make him the guy guys in here want to play with and play for.”

Blaming himself for not placing a ball perfectly is a little thing, Miller said. Praising the offensive line's protection after he kept the play alive by scrambling until a receiver came open is a little thing, guard David DeCastro said. Criticizing the offense for not scoring enough even though the defense gave up a late lead is a little thing, defensive end Cam Heyward said.

Last Sunday night, after the Steelers' season ended with a loss at Denver, Roethlisberger spied members of the media starting to gather around the locker of running back Fitzgerald Toussaint to grill him about his fumble that sparked Denver's winning drive.

Scheduled to speak a few minutes later at a podium in another room, Roethlisberger turned toward a Steelers official and said he would “go now” instead of first showering and changing into street clothes.

The impromptu move immediately drew many of the reporters away from Toussaint.

From across the room, red-eyed Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert smiled. Maybe we had the same thought, back to a conversation the week prior.

“A smart man once told me it's hard to be The Guy all the time,” Colbert said.

The Big Guy has become that guy. It's a big step for Big Ben.

And he has taken it just in time for the Steelers, who have big days — if not Super days — ahead.

Rob Rossi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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