'We keep him young': How Steelers' kid receivers try to connect with Ben Roethlisberger

PITTSBURGH -- For almost two decades, Ben Roethlisberger's locker has been situated in the back corner of the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room in the UPMC practice facility.

Over the years, he's had dozens of lockermates and teammates cycling in and out of the organization.

This season, his first full one back after last year's season-ending elbow surgery, Roethlisberger has some familiar faces and a few new ones. But they all have one thing in common.

They're really young.

"It's funny, in our locker room and in our facility right now, it's Ben and all his receiving groups, his running backs, all the players surrounding him," said JuJu Smith-Schuster, who turns 24 in November. "We keep him young -- TikTok, Instagram, social media, stuff like that. Pretty much give him the whole shebang of how we get down."

Roethlisberger, 38, the league's third-oldest starting quarterback, has the youngest receiving corps in the NFL. The Steelers' receivers average age checks in at 23.7, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It's not the biggest gap in receiver-quarterback age -- that belongs to the 43-year-old Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. But it's still significant considering Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger's top target for the better part of eight seasons, was only six years his junior.

But if there's a generational divide in the locker room, it doesn't show on the field.

In the season opener, Roethlisberger targeted nine different players. The oldest one was tight end Vance McDonald, who's still eight years Roethlisberger's junior at 30 years old.

The average age of the four receivers who caught a pass -- Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool and James Washington -- was 23.

"No doubt [they're] keeping him young," offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner said. "Maybe giving him a little bit more gray hair -- he is catching up to me. There's no doubt. That communication has been awesome to see. I don't know how you couldn't feel rejuvenated about things like that."

Roethlisberger certainly looks rejuvenated, something evident even on the practice field. During training camp, he goofed off as a new member of the special teams units, lining up as a wing on a field goal try and coverage man on a kick return. He also tried to field a squib kick and mishandled it, drawing laughter from his teammates. And he jokingly lined up offside on a couple kick coverage drills to get a head start.

"It's awesome to see that Ben," McDonald said during camp. "It's been really fun so far with him."

As Fichtner sees it, Roethlisberger's receivers keep him young in more ways than just showing him how to use TikTok.

Seeing Smith-Schuster dive into a pile of Giants players Monday night after a loose ball undoubtedly fires up Roethlisberger, Fichtner said Thursday.

"You watch a play like these guys were out there making and JuJu jumping in a pile and fighting 11 guys for a ball and things like that," the offensive coordinator said. "There's enough to be excited about that group and then Ben has just jumped into it with them. That's exciting, because they are a young group."

Missing last season was tough for Roethlisberger in so many ways, among them, losing the opportunity to build a rapport with his young targets on the field. The 24-year-old Johnson, who is in his second year, sees a difference with the quarterback since he returned from elbow surgery.

"He's more excited," Johnson said. "He's like anxious to get on the field and want to play with us. That makes you want to play for him even more.

"That's one of the things I've been seeing from him, him engaging with me more than he did last year because I was a rookie. He wasn't talking to me like that. Now, just being able to talk to him and have that connection, it's just going to keep building."

For Roethlisberger, the key to connecting with his receivers, no matter their age, is communication.

"I think that is the key to any relationship," Roethlisberger said. "I think that if you can communicate and talk and laugh and have fun and learn from each other, I think it goes a long way."

Roethlisberger took time in the offseason to meet up with his receivers at local high schools, even including rookie Claypool in some of the throwing sessions.

And the offseason relationships went beyond the field. Smith-Schuster posted a TikTok video hanging out by Roethlisberger's pool in May. Roethlisberger wasn't in the video as Smith-Schuster panned around to show the quarterback's backyard, but he has plans to get him in a video -- and maybe even a touchdown celebration -- eventually.

"I want to have a long relationship, time with Ben," Smith-Schuster said. "Ben's been playing this game for so long. He's accomplished pretty much everything that I dreamed of. I don't know how long I have with him, but I want to make every day, every game special with him. Every moment.

"Hopefully I can get him on a TikTok one day. Maybe I can get him to dance. One celebration I want to do with him is called the Trust Fall, very simple, but something to say that QB1 can trust his wideouts, stuff like that. It's very interesting. One day hopefully, if we're up by 50 or something like that, we'll get him to do one."