Keisel Moves into the spotlight

August 2, 2006

The Oklahoma drill Chuck Noll loved so much has long been dispatched from training camp, replaced by a more subtle, yet equally physical, session.

The drill that used to kick off each Steelers camp at Saint Vincent College is now a sideshow. Instead of the entire team, coaches, scouts and media gathering in a wide semicircle to watch a one-on-one live blocking drill, complete with hoots and hollers from the gallery, Steelers linemen shift to a corner of a field to take care of business pretty much by themselves. And with Ben Roethlisberger throwing passes at the other end, it guarantees the linemen do not grab much attention.

But when some defensive end is tossing around tackles as if he's Reggie White, it's hard not to notice.

"Keisel The Diesel," said 6-foot-8, 341-pound offensive tackle Max Starks yesterday. "He was pretty good in that one-on-one. Having a pass-rushing defensive end who is athletic, it definitely adds an extra dimension to your defense."

Brett Keisel, at right end, is the first new starter on the defensive line -- other than forced through injury -- since nose tackle Casey Hampton moved into the exclusive neighborhood Oct. 29, 2001, his sixth game in the NFL. Aaron Smith enters his seventh season starting at left end. Those two each have made Pro Bowls.

The rare vacancy in the three-man line came open when Kimo von Oelhoffen, 35, accepted an offer in free agency from the New York Jets. Von Oelhoffen started the past five seasons at right end.

So, as the defending Super Bowl champions return 19 starters, Keisel, 27, knows everyone will look to him not to mess with the chemistry that has fueled the defense the past several seasons.

"No question, there are going to be eyes on me. That's the position I'm in right now. My main thing is I don't want there to be any drop-off. I know if a run busts open on the right side, people will say, 'Well, if Kimo would have been there, it would have been a different story.' That's my biggest thing, I want to get better stopping the run."

It is the prime law of the turf for Steelers defensive linemen in a 3-4. They play to stop the run first and foremost, and to hold double-teams to allow their linebackers to clean up the play. It's not a glorious position, and success is not counted in the number of tackles or sacks. Smith's 55 tackles were tops among Steelers linemen last season but only eighth on the defense.

Now along comes Keisel in a different mold. He's taller and leaner than the prototypical Steelers defensive end. Von Oelhoffen was 6-4, 299; Smith, 6-5, 298. Keisel is 6-5 and after packing on 10 pounds since last season, he's still only 290. While von Oelhoffen and Smith each had their moments as pass rushers (with season highs of eight tackles), neither has the kind of quickness and speed that Keisel brings to the line.

He showed enough last season as an active backup for the Steelers to sign him to a four-year, $13.1 million contract on March 14 when he became an unrestricted free agent. His signing came hours after von Oelhoffen signed with the Jets.

What the coaches see in Keisel is someone who makes plays -- he had three sacks in his part-time role last regular season and then had two in the AFC championship game in Denver. He was a special-teams standout long before he got his shot at playing more regularly in 2004 on a defense that likes to spell its starting ends. He kept his weight at 280 because he knew he had to fly down the field on special teams and he did not want to lose the ability to do that.

His days as a special teams player are gone, but can he pick up where von Oelhoffen left off against the run?

"He's going to play well against the run," line coach John Mitchell said. "That's the thing guys know up front. Our job is to stop the run. I have no qualms how he's going to play. He's going to play well. Here's a guy who's been here, he knows the scheme, he uses his hands well, he has great feet. If they run over Brett Keisel, he'll have an opportunity to make a lot of plays."