PITTSBURGH -- After spending six seasons following leaders such as Jerome Bettis, James Farrior and Hines Ward, the Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback believes it's time to become one himself.
Ben Roethlisberger understands why his teammates stripped him of his captaincy this season: It's difficult to be a locker-room leader while serving a four-game suspension for misconduct.
Roethlisberger is trying to repair his image -- that of a self-absorbed star who can be rude to the public and players alike. Part of the transformation means asserting himself more in the locker room of one of the NFL's most-experienced teams.
Roethlisberger believes, with the Steelers at a critical juncture in their season, it's demanded of him that he become more of a leader. And he knows running the huddle isn't enough.
"I've never been a rah-rah voice," Roethlisberger said. "I might pull guys aside and talk to them. It's always been about action for me. It's time now for me at this point of the season transitioning to being more of a vocal guy, as well as a lead-by-example (guy)."
Roethlisberger said Ward urged him to assume the role when the two talked following the Steelers' 39-26 loss to New England on Sunday.
"I told him, 'We've got to come together as leaders and, captain or no captain, you're a leader of this team,"' Ward said. "Together, we've got to go out and lead the way for this team to make it better. I think all the veteran guys, myself, James, Casey (Hampton), James Harrison, we've all got to come together as a group and get this thing back going so what happened last year doesn't happen again this year."
The Steelers were 6-2 last season, only to watch their chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions evaporate during a five-game losing streak that included losses to some of the NFL's worst teams. One was Oakland, which returns to Heinz Field on Sunday as a much-stronger team that has won three in a row and owns a share of the AFC West lead.
While it might seem a stretch that Roethlisberger could reshape his damaged image so quickly -- Ward was among those who agreed last spring with the NFL's decision to suspend him -- the quarterback believes that nearly seven seasons of being a starter prepared him for the job. So did winning two Super Bowls.
"We both kind of said, 'Well, it's time for us as veteran guys, leaders who have been around here awhile and played late-season ball, postseason ball to lead these guys who have done it only once or twice or never,'" Roethlisberger said. "We've got to show them how to do this. Hopefully show other people how on the field, in the meeting room, through leadership."
Such a leadership role wouldn't have been suitable then for Roethlisberger, but he now is the second most-tenured player to Ward among the offensive starters. Right tackle Flozell Adams has been in the NFL longer, but he joined the Steelers only this season. Kicker Jeff Reed was cut Tuesday after being with the team since 2002.
"He (Ward) actually brought up -- 'Hey, lead us, show us how to do this,'" Roethlisberger said. "And I said, 'It's us. We're in this together. I need you as much as you need me and we all need to do this together.'"
While the Steelers (6-3) still have Buffalo (1-8), Carolina (1-8) and Cincinnati (2-7) remaining on their schedule, they also have potentially difficult games against Oakland (5-4), Baltimore (6-3) and the New York Jets (7-2), plus a season-ending game at improving Cleveland (3-6). Anything resembling the slump of last season might significantly damage their chances of reaching the playoffs for the seventh time in 10 seasons.
"With the loss of Jeff Reed being a locker room favorite, it's tough," Ward said. "It's time to have a sense of urgency; we've got to start playing better ball in the month of November and the latter part of the season. And it's going to take our leaders. We've got to come together closely as a group."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press