Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Steelers' Keisel improves 'D' by more than a hair

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 16: Blaine Gabbert(notes) #11 of the Jacksonville Jaguars reacts after losing 17-13 next to Brett Keisel(notes) #99 of the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on October 16, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

The beard is taking over center stage again. I get that. But this is ridiculous: "The beard is back and it's helping our team win," Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel insisted.


That's my story and I'm sticking to it until I see Keisel's beard make its first tackle or bat down its first pass or get its first sack.

Hey, don't get the wrong idea. I like a good beard as much as the next man. Keisel has a beauty going again, just like last season. It was nearly as hot of a topic at Super Bowl XLV in February as star quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers. It even had its own T-shirt -- "Respect The Beard, Fear The Diesel" -- and raised a lot of money for charity.

It was great fun.

But enough.

The story here this morning is not about Keisel's beard or its new T-shirt -- "Da-Beard" -- which can be purchased at www.brettkeisel.com. It's about Keisel's ability, which too often gets lost in all of his hair and doesn't get nearly the recognition it deserves. He was the best defensive player on the Heinz Field lawn Sunday in the Steelers' 17-13 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars, apologies to linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who had two sacks.

What a difference Keisel has made since returning to the lineup after missing two games with a knee problem. The same defense that was gashed for 86 yards and a touchdown by Indianapolis running back Joseph Addai and 155 yards and a touchdown by Houston's Arian Foster in his absence stiffened almost immediately. Tennessee's Chris Johnson managed 51 yards on 14 carries in the Steelers' 38-17 win Oct. 9 and, although Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew ran for 96, he needed 22 carries and took a solid beating.

Still, Keisel isn't satisfied, not after the Jaguars scored 10 second-half points to make the game far too interesting.

"We have to be better if we want to be great. We've got to put people away when we have the chance."

Certainly, Keisel did his part Sunday. There was so much more to his performance than his work against the run. He tackled Jones-Drew for a 3-yard loss on a screen pass. He batted away another pass at the line of scrimmage, something he seems to do just about every week. And, I almost forgot, he had two sacks.

The second one was huge, coming on the first play after the Jaguars took possession at their 23 with no timeouts and 1:01 left. "It's always devastating when you take a sack in your two-minute offense," Keisel said.

It's not much of a reach to suggest Keisel, 33 and in his 10th NFL season, is the Steelers' best defensive lineman. Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton have been out with injuries after slow starts. Chris Hoke was injured Sunday. Ziggy Hood, in his third season, still is learning. Rookie Cameron Heyward is a mere baby in Dick LeBeau's defense.

"I'm just trying to be a mentor and a leader for these young guys," Keisel said. "I'm trying to be someone who is accountable. To do that, I have to go out in practice and work hard, then carry it into the games and help this team win."

What's remarkable about that is one of the young guys surely will take Keisel's job one day and push him into retirement.

"That's just the way this game is," Keisel said, shrugging. "When Aaron, Casey, Hokey and I are gone, I still want this to be the same tough, hard-nosed defense that it's always been."

The end doesn't appear to be as near for Keisel, who is signed through the 2013 season, as it does for Smith and Hampton. He still has a little jump left in his game. Literally.

"Yeah, I still have a little vertical left," he said, grinning.

In the Tennessee game, Keisel leaped to deflect a pass that was intercepted by Woodley. Sunday, he got way up again to swat another pass away. That makes at least one such breakup in eight of his past 12 games going back to last season when he made his first Pro Bowl.

"That's something I've tried really hard to incorporate into my game," Keisel said. "I know I'm not going to get to the quarterback every time. But I'm long. I try to get my hands up on every play."

The man's athleticism is impressive, as good as any defensive end's in the league, if you believe the Steelers coaches. That goes back to his high school days when he was a basketball player of some renown in Wyoming. "I was decent, but I always fouled out. I guess I liked to get physical."

Big surprise there, right?

Keisel was better than decent in hoops. A number of smaller colleges offered him scholarships to play basketball. Montana and Montana State wanted him for football and basketball. He decided to stick with football at Brigham Young.

"I made the right decision."

For him, clearly.

For the Steelers, absolutely.

And, yes, I hate to admit it, for Da-Beard.

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