Ben Roethlisberger guides Steelers' young players through playoff 'whirlwind'

PITTSBURGH -- Reeling in the midst of a three-game losing streak two weeks ago, Ben Roethlisberger called a players-only meeting for the offense.

Wednesday morning, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback called another.

The purpose of these meetings wasn't to correct things going wrong within the Steelers' offense.

Instead, Roethlisberger wanted to focus his teammates on the future, to ready them for the most important part of their season: the playoffs.

"The sole intention was just to let guys know that, like we do every year about this time, if we are getting ready to get in the postseason or the last couple of games of the season, just how important every game is, every play is, every rep in practice," Roethlisberger said. "I felt like today was another time we could reemphasize that and just let people know how special it is. Half of the teams in the NFL aren't playing this week, so it's an honor to have the opportunity."

Roethlisberger will be starting his 22nd playoff game on Sunday, against the Cleveland Browns (8:15 p.m. ET, NBC). For the players around him, playoff experience is scarce -- especially among skill players.

Roethlisberger's plan of holding players-only meetings to reiterate the important mindset entering the playoffs is reminiscent of what veterans did for him ahead of his first playoff game in January 2005.

"I just remember it being a whirlwind," Roethlisberger said, adding the veterans on that team also called a players-only meeting. "Telling myself, 'Don't screw it up for these veterans. Do everything you can to play good enough to help you win.' That is one of the messages I preach to these guys. No one has to be great. You just have to be good. When we're all good, we're great together."

The last time Roethlisberger was in the playoffs, he was flanked by postseason veterans Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown with 12 starts between them. This time, the wide receivers and running backs have one playoff start belonging to JuJu Smith-Schuster from the January 2018 game against Jacksonville. Tight end Eric Ebron, finishing up his first season in Pittsburgh, has four postseason appearances in his career with the Detroit Lions and Indianapolis Colts, and Vance McDonald has four between the 49ers and Steelers.

In a way only he can, Smith-Schuster explained the stakes of the playoffs in video game terms.

"How I see it is if you've ever played 'Call of Duty,' it's called 'Search and Destroy' -- pretty much get one life," Smith-Schuster said. "Once you get eliminated, you're eliminated for that round. How I see it is this round, everyone gets one life. We have to go out there, dominate. Whoever wins, they move on to the next round. There's a lot of people who don't get many chances to get where we're at today.

"I've been here for four years, and this is only my second time making it. We don't want to be the team that depends on the other team if we make it or not. We want to control our own destiny. Now that we're here, the preparation of your mind, studying, your plays, make sure you're on your P's and Q's, constantly studying your playbook. When we go out there, play physical, play strong, play fast."

Not only do the receivers lack playoff experience -- most of them haven't played in a game of this magnitude on any level. Rookie Chase Claypool is the lone receiver who had playoff experience before the NFL, participating in the College Football Playoff with Notre Dame in 2018.

"I don't want to say it's just another football game, because obviously there are a lot bigger things on the line," Claypool said. "You don't want to let the game get to your head, to your preparation. Just keep doing what you have been doing every week."

Despite a lack of playoff experience, the Steelers' offense is trending in the right direction after a strong second half against Indianapolis and a solid performance against Cleveland, even without Roethlisberger.

Second-year receiver Diontae Johnson is in a groove after shaking off a slump marred by drops, and he had three catches for 96 yards against the Browns a week ago.

"That gave me confidence, had me playing good out there again," Johnson said of his three catches. "I feel like myself again. I want to continue to show the world that is what I am capable of each Sunday. However far we go, this offseason I am going to work my tail off to come back stronger next year."

The scarcity of these moments isn't lost on this team -- and it has been something Roethlisberger has emphasized in the players-only meetings.

"When I was a young guy, people tried to explain to me [to] take advantage of this, that and the other," Roethlisberger said. "You're thinking, 'I am young; I'll get back.' It's not guaranteed. I think all of the veteran guys, as we are winding down our careers, we understand we don't know what is next, if there is going to be a next for some guys. We just want to make the most of our opportunity, and we just keep trying to tell those guys and emphasize to them how important this time is."