DE Keisel is an unheralded hero for Steelers

November 20, 2009

LaMarr Woodley called Brett Keisel the "most underrated defensive end in the NFL."

James Farrior probably wouldn't argue with something else Woodley said earlier this week: that Keisel merits consideration for the Pro Bowl. "Best year since I've been here," Farrior said when asked how Keisel has been playing.

By applying the transitive property to Farrior's claim, Keisel is having the best year of his career since both players joined the Steelers in 2002.

Keisel leads the Steelers in quarterback pressures (16) and is tied for second in sacks (three). He has also proved to be a stabilizing force up front since the Steelers lost Aaron Smith to a season-ending shoulder injury.

When Smith went down near the end of the 2007 season, the Steelers' rush defense collapsed like a house of cards.

In the five games since they placed Smith on injured reserve this year, their run defense has actually improved statistically. The Steelers have yielded 67 rushing yards per game during that span compared to the 71 they were giving up with Smith in the lineup.

Keisel has excelled, and the Steelers have been stout opposite him while using a three-man rotation of Travis Kirschke, Nick Eason and Ziggy Hood in place of Smith at left defensive end.

"Losing a great player like that we have no time to hold our heads down and (say): 'Man, what are we going to do without (No.) 91?' " Keisel said of Smith, his close friend and former mentor. "I know it was an opportunity for me to step up and show my teammates what I was capable of and that we can still keep this bus moving."

It wouldn't be entirely accurate to say Keisel has elevated his play since Smith got hurt. That is because his coaches and teammates say the eighth-year veteran has been playing at a high level since early September, when the Steelers officially began the defense of their Super Bowl title.

"When you grade the tape, you see a guy that makes a lot of plays," Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell said. "He plays under the radar."

Added defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau: "He had two tremendous years the past two years, but he's playing better than that right now."

The Steelers have gotten a bargain with Keisel twice. The first time came in 2002, when they took Keisel with the 243rd pick of the NFL Draft. More recently, the Steelers locked up Keisel for the next five years with a contract that is worth a little less than $19 million.

So far, they have gotten more than their money's worth out of the deal as the experience Keisel brought into 2009 has dovetailed with his immense physical talent and produced the breakout season.

"I'm playing with a lot of confidence," said Keisel, 31, who is in his fourth season as a starter at right defensive end. "I think once you get to a certain point in this game, the game maybe does slow down a little bit. You don't get as excited when things happen. You learn how to kind of control your emotions through the good and the bad."

Rangy and athletic, Keisel frequently moves around before the snap in an attempt to confuse opposing offenses. That the 6-foot-5, 285-pounder has the green light to do so isn't so much a matter of trust as it is the Steelers using common sense, LeBeau said, given Keisel's athleticism.

"He was a tremendous basketball player," LeBeau said. "He's probably the fastest defensive lineman in the league. He's got tremendous hand-eye coordination. He could easily be a linebacker. He's just too good of a lineman. For our team not to take advantage of his individual skills, I think we'd be remiss."

For those outside of Pittsburgh not to recognize Keisel's importance to the Steelers' defense would also be a mistake, said Woodley.

Ends in a 3-4 defense generally don't put up big numbers, particularly when it comes to sacks. But Keisel has consistently been a disruptive force as a pass rusher, and he was the catalyst for one of the biggest plays of the season.

It came in the fourth quarter almost a month ago when Keisel sacked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre and forced a fumble. Woodley scooped up the loose ball and rumbled 77 yards for a touchdown in the Steelers' 27-17 win.

As for the player who unofficially got the assist on the touchdown, Woodley said: "I thought he should have went to the Pro Bowl last year. Playing in this 3-4 scheme, you do different things, so your sacks aren't going to be as high. But the things (Keisel) does, as far as putting pressure on the quarterback, allowing guys like me and James (Harrison) coming off the edge to get sacks, have to count for something."