Keisel bucking for more time

August 17, 2005

Last year, Chris Hoke led the Steelers in preseason sacks. He parlayed that into a starting gig, a new dance craze, and an enriching contract extension.

This year, a different back-up defensive lineman from BYU has similar plans. Already, Brett Keisel has jumped out with half a sack in the first game. He has the lean, hungry look of a preseason favorite.

“I do see it,” said Keisel. “For sure.”

If Keisel sounds like a cowboy, it’s because he is.

One of four NFL players from the great state of Wyoming, Keisel grew up on a 1,000-acre ranch and broke ponies as a teen, rode in cattle drives, even rode a bull. He could’ve joined the rodeo, like his older brother, but says it’s too dangerous.

And playing defensive end in the NFL is a walk in the park?

“I run around the guy,” Keisel said. “I don’t think I could run around a bull.”

He did the other night. Keisel took the field against the Philadelphia Eagles with the second team and immediately made his presence felt. He made three tackles in the first nine plays and came free on third-and-one to hurry quarterback Koy Detmer into an incompletion.

Two series later, Keisel and Hoke sacked Detmer for a five-yard loss. Keisel’s quickness set it up.

“I want to get at least one sack a game in this preseason,” he said. “I told my wife that and I think it’s an attainable goal.”

Keisel is the fastest defensive lineman on the team. He proved it without doubt at the run test to open camp. Keisel says he’s in the best shape of his four-year career after working out most of the summer at an altitude of 7,000 feet.

“The Big Horn Mountains are only about 20 minutes from my house in Wyoming,” he said. “I drive to the top of the mountain, do a workout up there, go fishing and come home. It’s a great day.”

Keisel said he’ll take Crazy Horse over Custer; ranching over farming; and celebrating a sack over a Cowher shower any day.

“That wasn’t where I wanted to be,” Keisel said of the stern lecture he received Monday night from coach Bill Cowher.

Keisel had retaliated against a cheap-shotting Eagles lineman and the Steelers were flagged 15 yards. Instead of third-and-4 at the Pittsburgh 7, the Eagles had first-and-goal at the three. They scored on the next play as Cowher raged at Keisel.

“I deserved it,” Keisel said. “I just kind of gave him a little nudge with my hip. I didn’t kick him, but it was a stupid mistake and I won’t do it again.”

A series later, Keisel was blocked and Ryan Moats ran through the hole for his second touchdown.

Keisel doesn’t feel his run defense is the reason he rarely saw the field last year. Recovered from a 2003 injury, he saw limited action in 2004 behind iron-man Aaron Smith, who logged an average of 65 snaps per game.

Keisel has improved his run defense – “drastically,” he said -- but can’t do anything about the entrenched Pro Bowler in front of him at left end.

“Aaron Smith is the greatest 3-4 end, I think, in this league,” Keisel said. “And he’s a guy that likes to be on the field. And why would you take a Pro Bowl player out of the game when he wants to be on the field?

“No, it’s not completely up to Aaron, but if (line coach John) Mitch(ell) thinks Aaron’s fine, he’s going to leave him out there. I would, too, if I was a coach.”

But the coaches want Keisel’s fast-twitch pass rush on the field. To that end, they told him to learn all of the line positions and to be ready for some work at linebacker.

That move hasn’t occurred yet, but in the mind of coordinator Dick LeBeau, a scheme-bending position switch is never too far away.

“I’ve got big expectations for myself,” the 6-5, 285-pound Keisel said. “I want to be on the field. I don’t want to sit and watch. I’m not satisfied with special teams.

“Now, special teams has gotten me where I am today. Without them, who knows where I’d be?”

Probably back in Wyoming, where the skies are not cloudy all day.