Keisel counts blessings after injury scare

January 15, 2009

Brett Keisel is much friendlier to reporters than he is to opposing quarterbacks. So it was no surprise to see the outgoing defensive end holding court in front of his locker the first time the Steelers' locker room was open to the media this week.

The scene -- a smiling Keisel answered questions about Sunday's AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens -- stood in stark contrast to one that played out less than two months ago.

Keisel experienced as lonely a feeling as an athlete can have while sitting in an MRI machine. As pictures were taken of the left knee that he feared had betrayed him, Keisel said prayers to keep from thinking the worst: that his season had come to an end.

If the Steelers' 35-24 win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday was any indication, Keisel's knee is better than ever.

Keisel recorded a sack against the Chargers and figured prominently in one of the game's pivotal moments. On the only play the Chargers ran in the third quarter, Keisel batted a Philip Rivers pass into the air and linebacker Larry Foote intercepted it.

If that game bodes well for Keisel against the Ravens, so does the fact he starred the last time the Steelers played in the AFC Championship Game.

The 6-foot-5, 285-pounder, in fact, staged his coming-out party in the Steelers' 34-17 win over Denver in January 2006. He sacked Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer twice.

Keisel cracked the starting lineup the following season and didn't miss a game until this season when calf and knee injuries sidelined him for six contests.

Keisel returned from the knee injury in the Steelers' next-to-last regular-season game, and he seemed to finally have his legs under him against the Chargers.

"I know Brett is one of those guys that had a different bounce in his step when he came back from his injury," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

There is a simple reason for that: Keisel feared the worst had happened after he hurt his knee while making a tackle in the Steelers' 27-10 win over the Bengals on Nov. 20.

"I thought right off the bat I was done for the year," Keisel said. "I never really had leg problems at all, but when I got hit I just felt it. People always talk about a popping sensation, and I felt that. The whole ride to the hospital, I'm like, 'It's over.'"

He pondered that reality for a sleepless night before getting word from Steelers trainer John Norwig that the injury was not as serious as initially thought. Keisel said the Steelers' trainers "worked his butt off," and it has paid off for him as well as the No. 1 defense in the NFL.

The seven-year veteran may get overshadowed by some of the stars on the Steelers' defense, but Keisel has established himself as a key member of it.

Keisel finished fourth on the Steelers' in quarterback pressures (12) despite missing almost half of the regular season. And he plays with the kind of selflessness that reflects the defense's mindset that no one player is bigger than the group.

"We really just see 11 guys out there," strong safety Troy Polamalu said. "We've all just stuck together and we're just one stroke of a big painting."

That is just fine with Keisel.

"We're such a tight group of guys where we genuinely enjoy coming to work," Keisel said. "We have a great family atmosphere here; we win, it's a lot of fun."