Keisel Thrives in Steelers’ Defensive System

January 20, 2009

Pittsburgh isn’t the biggest city with an NFL franchise, but it’s still a little too fast-paced for Brett Keisel’s taste.

It’s not that Keisel hasn’t enjoyed his seven seasons with the Steelers or his time in Pittsburgh. He most certainly has.

But when the seventh-year defensive end stacks up his adopted in-season hometown against where he grew up, it simply doesn’t compare, in his mind.

“During the offseason, absolutely, I go back to Wyoming and just kind of lay back,” Keisel said. “Life slows down back there. I’m from a town that has one stop light, so it’s nice to get back and relax and get up in the mornings and work out, and then I have the rest of the day to fish or do whatever.”

Keisel is a native of Greybull, Wyo., in the northwestern corner of the state—not far from Yellowstone National Park. Looking at him, it would probably come as no surprise that he is from the Rocky Mountain West; despite the lack of a cowboy hat, his scruffy beard makes him appear to be a natural at home on a vast ranch.

In addition to growing up in Wyoming and still making the Equality State his permanent residence, Keisel attended Brigham Young University in neighboring Utah. Once he retires, Keisel said he “absolutely” plans to move back to Wyoming with his wife and young son.

“I enjoy going back home and slowing down a little bit and being around the simple life,” Keisel said.

Funny, because the defensive system in which Keisel has thrived in Pittsburgh is anything but simple. A seventh-round draft choice by the Steelers in 2002, Keisel has been a starter for three seasons in Pittsburgh. Under legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the Steelers have been known for their complex schemes and blitz packages.

One of those wrinkles put into place the past two seasons involved, at times, LeBeau turning Keisel loose as sort of a freelance defensive player. On those plays, Keisel is able to line up on different sides of the line, rush the quarterback on occasion, drop back into coverage or choose a lane from which to attack.

At 6-foot-5, 285 pounds, Keisel’s athleticism thrives when given those chances—chances that LeBeau has also given, in a more conventional fashion, to Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu. But Keisel is deceptively quick and athletic for someone his size.

“Coach Lebeau has really given me the freedom to get up and move around and try and confuse the offense,” Keisel said. “It’s been a lot of fun. I feel like a “Big Troy.” I watched him for a couple years come up to the line and act like he’s going somewhere and go somewhere else. It’s been fun.”

That’s quite a role for a player who didn’t even start at BYU until his senior season, when he was named honorable mention All-Mountain West Conference. Keisel dressed for only five regular season (and two postseason) games during his first two years in the NFL. He spent the entire 2003 season on injured reserve.

During Pittsburgh’s 15-1 season in 2004, Keisel was active for all 13 games in which he was healthy, and during 2005 he became a regular part of the rotation on the defensive line. He also became a standout on special teams.

His performance compelled the Steelers to sign Keisel to a lucrative contract extension as he entered free agency that offseason.

After barely getting on the field as a low-round draft pick as a rookie in 2002, Keisel holds a string of 42 consecutive starts in games in which he has been healthy from 2006-08.

“I went from the worst-snoring teammate during training camp, to now I have my own room, which is fabulous,” Keisel said. “It’s funny, just how you kind of come full-circle from being a scrub to being the starter. And it’s a dream come true for me.”

During that breakout 2005 campaign, Keisel enjoyed perhaps his greatest game on one of the biggest of stages. Still only on the field for a limited number of snaps, Keisel had his first career two-sack game and forced a fumble during the Steelers’ win at Denver in the AFC Championship game.

That contest, of course, led to Keisel being able to enjoy his greatest triumph: winning Super Bowl XL along with his teammates. The ring he earned as reward for that feat is one of his most-prized possessions.

“It’s in a safe, safe place. I take it out every once in a while and look at it and kiss it,” Keisel joked. “But you know, I want to get another one.”

Keisel would hate to have only a single Super Bowl ring to his name when the time comes to retire back to the Wyoming ranch someday.