PITTSBURGH -- Ask Ben Roethlisberger about Maurkice Pouncey and the ribbing session begins, unprompted.
"We're not that close. Because he thinks he's really good. And he's just OK," said Roethlisberger from his locker. "Sometimes I wish Mike [Pouncey] was here."
All this is said for Pouncey to overhear from his locker, which is two stalls down from Roethlisberger's corner setup.
"Hey, Mike's gonna love that s---, too," Pouncey said.
Eight years of huddles, snaps, text messages and dinners make moments like this feel routine for the Pittsburgh Steelers' quarterback and center.
Or, as Roethlisberger calls it, "being us."
"We rip each other a little bit, but there's a lot of love there," Roethlisberger said.
The Steelers' colorful offense has the game's best receiver (Antonio Brown), most disgruntled receiver (Martavis Bryant), most relentless back (Le'Veon Bell) and youngest player (JuJu Smith-Schuster). But at the core are Pouncey and Roethlisberger, two team leaders who are always together and use each other as sounding boards.
The QB-center battery will discuss everything from internet memes to what's best for the offense.
"If there's an issue, a lot of times he goes to Maurkice -- that's how the relationship is," guard Ramon Foster said.
Roethlisberger considers himself an extension of the offensive line, the unit he most needs for success. The receivers, he says, naturally need him because he has the ball. But check most dead moments in practice and Roethlisberger is hanging with Pouncey and the rest of the line.
Roethlisberger took a special liking to Pouncey, who was 21 when the Steelers drafted him in 2010. He felt drawn to him.
"He sees stuff in me that others don't, I guess," Pouncey said.
The "stuff" is a fiery persona that carries weight in the locker room. Roethlisberger saw a good player, sure, but also a voice that fuels the Steelers' intensity throughout the week.
It's infectious enough that Roethlisberger's moods run low when Pouncey's do. Coach Mike Tomlin and former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians used to tell Roethlisberger that his energy, good or bad, affects the rest of the group. And that's how Roethlisberger feels about Pouncey.
"I told him the other day, something happened, and I said, 'Pounce, it's so unusual to see you in a bad mood,'" Roethlisberger said. "When he's not the same, it kind of brings everybody down. In a way like, ugh, where's our energy? Where's our spark plug? And that's him, he's our spark plug ... When you're down, we're all down."
Pouncey knows not to be down again.
"Hell yeah, because I don't want him to say anything," said Pouncey with a laugh. "I know he's going to say something to me if I don't."
Pouncey has been to Roethlisberger's Georgia lake house with the rest of the offensive line, but the two also have dined together away from the group at Prime 112 in Miami and hosted each other for home dinners north of Pittsburgh.
Pouncey often hosts a get-right night for the offensive line on Thursdays, complete with chiropractors, masseuses and grub. Roethlisberger comes by on occasion.
Pouncey understands why Roethlisberger is always around.
"He's always been protective of me, and I'm protective of him," Pouncey said.
Now veterans, both players have talked about maturing from their younger years.
As Pouncey entered the league in 2010, Roethlisberger was set to serve a four-game suspension for violation of the league's personal conduct policy stemming from a high-profile Milledgeville, Georgia, incident in which he was accused of sexual assault, but not charged. Pouncey reportedly reached a settlement stemming from an alleged nightclub attack in 2014.
By all accounts, Pouncey and Roethlisberger have evolved, and new perspectives helped shape their relationships.
"It naturally happens when you get older," Roethlisberger said. "He's got kids; I've got kids. We talk about experiences our kids are going through. It's not all about football all the time. It's about family too."
When it is about football, Roethlisberger appreciates a teammate who will protect him at all costs and "wants to be the best to ever play the game."
When Roethlisberger watches football, he takes notice of how the linemen and the quarterback treat each other after broken plays, penalties, sacks or holding the ball too long in the pocket. Roethlisberger feels he and the offensive line show each other respect through good and bad plays.
The quarterback might tell Pouncey to get his snaps up, though, just to get a rise out of his center.
"He's fun as hell to be around. He's always joking around," Pouncey said. "We just have a unique relationship."
This plays out in a group text between the offensive line and Roethlisberger. The chat is basically an extension of that locker room moment.
Random material is preferred.
"There's no real rhyme or reason to what we talk about and laugh about," Roethlisberger said.