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Keisel continuing steady climb

November 21, 2009

When he got back to the locker room following a two-sack performance in the 2005 AFC Championship game in Denver, free-agent to-be Brett Keisel checked his cell phone and found a text message from one of his representatives that was impossible to misinterpret.

"$$$$$$$."

Two Superbowls and two contracts later, Keisel is still a money player for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Upon returning to the Rocky Mountains on Nov. 9, he treated Kyle Orton the way Jake Plummer had been dealt with in that conference title game. With the Steelers minus starting defensive end Aaron Smith and backup-turned-starter Travis Kirschke, Keisel dominated to the tune of two sacks and a pass defensed while playing with aggression at an altitude and almost never leaving the field.

For the Steelers it was a much-needed performance from one of their defensive ends in a resounding 28-10 victory.

From Keisel it was merely more of the same.

"Brett Keisel has played well all season," assistant head coach John Mitchell said. "It's still early, but I told him up until this point this is the best he's played. And he's played well in the past."

Since arriving as a No. 7b draft pick out of BYU (242nd overall), Keisel has advanced from roster survivor to special teams sensation to trusted backup to full-time starter. As it was with Smith, Keisel's progression into prominence has been much more gradual than sensational.

"Both Aaron and I came from 4-3 teams wehre we were used to rushing off the edge," Keisel said. "This is a tough system that Coach (Dick) LeBeau runs, and it takes some time to kind of grasp it all."

"But once you get it, once you kind of figure out where you fit in the defense, it sets you up to be in position to make plays."

Now in his fourth year as a first-teamer, Keisel is following in Smith's footsteps by earning adulations for being underrated.

"I think he's one of the most overlooked defensive lineman in the NFL right now," Mitchell said.

Keisel reported to training camp this summer at St. Vincent College uncertain as to whether he'd be signed to a long-term extension or become an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of the 2009 campaign.

He also showed up focused.

"Going into my eighth year, I knew this was going to be a big year for me," Keisel said. "It was possibly a contract year. We're coming off a Super Bowl win and all of us around here know what that tastes like and want to taste it again. So I worked hard this offseason to try to come to camp in the best shape possible."

"I thought there was a small chance we might get something done before I became unrestricted. But, you can't go to camp and think every day, 'Oh, what if I get hurt?' You just have to go and play.

"It's out of your control. You don't know what they're thinking sometimes. You just have to put yourself in position to do the best you can, and that's what I tried to do."

The Steelers and Keisel eventually came to terms on Aug. 31, and he's now bound to the team through 2013. Just as he had previously, Keisel has been quietly earning his keep ever since.

As an end in the Steelers 3-4 alignment, Keisel's perceived value is betrayed by the stat sheet. Although his three sacks through eight games matched what he had amassed in 2007 and 2008 seasons combined, Mitchell is much more appreciative of the way Keisel goes about his business than any numbers that might be forthcoming as a result.

Keisel is always in shape, Mitchell maintains. Keisel absorbs the defensive game plan and studies the opposition weekly. And, above all else, Keisel plays with great discipline and technique. Mitchell says those are all characteristics that have helped Keisel continue to elevate his level of play.

"A couple of years ago he had a little trouble playing the double team. Hey, he plays the the double team now as well as anybody I have," Mitchell said. "He's a young guy (31). He's been a starter for five years now. That's not a long time to be a starter, and he's still getting better."

If there's a number that can accurately quantify Keisel's contributions, it might be No.1.

That's what the Steelers ranked in rushing defense after holding the Broncos to 27 yards on the ground, including 1 yard on three carries in the second half.

"I want to stop the run," Mitchell said. "We make 'em throw the ball and you know Coach LeBeau, we're gonna come after 'em. Our deal on the defensive line is to stop the run. Brett is doing it."

About the only thing Keisel hasn't done since Smith was put on the injured reserve list prior to the Steelers Oct. 18 game vs. Cleveland is follow his own advise.

Keisel proved momentarily incapable of that by letting a potential interception slip through his grasp again against the Browns.

"That game was the first game we didn't have Aaron, Keisel said. "Aaron is usually the guy who does our pep talk for the D-Line. so, I asked Casey Hampton if he wanted to take over, and he said, 'No, you do it.'

"So, I told the guys, 'All of you are battle-tested; just go out and when you're in a position to make a play, make the play.' And then I missed that interception, so I guess my word was out the window."

Keisel's deeds have provided plenty of inspiration.

"He's a good football player," Mitchell said, "I'm happy we have him, and I'm happy he's on a long-term contract."