Brett Keisel gives a big hug to former Steeler Duce Staley, now a coach with the Eagles, before Thursday night's preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There is nothing wrong with the Steelers defense that Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton and James Harrison in their prime could not fix.
So how about Brett Keisel?
“It was a bad day,” Keisel said of Thursday night, when the Philadelphia Eagles drilled the Steelers defense. “There is work to be done, and I look forward to helping correct that.”
Keisel, who watched the 31-21 loss Thursday in uniform from the sideline, played a big part in many of the great Steelers defenses that dominated the NFL in the 2000s. The question now becomes how much he can help a younger, transitioning defense that had its wings trimmed by the Eagles.
The Steelers signed him this week to a two-year contract that will pay him $1.5 million this season, which likely will be his final one in the NFL. He hopes to make it a worthwhile one and said he did not return for his 13th NFL season to watch his teammates play. He wants to start, which he has done at right defensive end for the past nine seasons.
“I’m going to try. I want to play my best ball, and, if that’s good enough to be a starter, then that is what I’m going to try to do,” Keisel said. “I’m going to play.
“I really don’t think they brought me back just to teach these guys everything and try to teach them the little things that make you a good defensive lineman. I think they brought me back to help and to help lead, and I look forward to doing that.”
Keisel will turn 36 Sept. 19. There are not many players in the history of the league who saw their 36th birthday while starting at defensive end.
“Yeah, well. I’m 26 at heart,” he said. “I don’t feel old, my body feels good. I feel I have a lot of good football left, and I think they do, too, or this wouldn’t have happened.
“I know the age is always looked at in the NFL, and it’s a big thing, and this team is getting younger — we have a lot of great young prospects. I look forward to getting in there and restoring things. I look forward to helping those men and getting out there and bleeding with those guys.”
They need something after two Eagles quarterbacks, Nick Foles and backup Mark Sanchez, and a slew of running backs picked apart the Steelers first-team defense for three quarters.
Keisel warmed up Thursday night and dressed for the game, but coach Mike Tomlin would not let him play, as much as Keisel wanted to while watching his once-proud defense get torched.
“I’m sure they’re going to ease me into things a little bit. But I wanted to go out there and play. Coach Tomlin told me not to,” Keisel said. “We were warming up, and I said I’m going to sneak in on a few. He told me I better not.
“I really wished I could have helped. I never liked watching.”
How much can he help?
Cam Heyward has taken over his job at right defensive end, but who mans the other end remains a question. Cam Thomas, who signed from San Diego as a free agent, started there in the Chargers 3-4 base defense. The Steelers signed him ideally to be a backup swing man between end and nose tackle. Coincidentally, the Steelers signed Thomas to the exact amount of money for 2014 that lured Keisel back — a $1 million salary with a $500,000 signing bonus.
They would like rookie Stephon Tuitt ultimately to start at defensive end; he now enters at tackle in their first nickel and dime defenses.
If Keisel were to start, Heyward could move to the left side because Keisel has never operated over there on what usually is the strong side. Heyward bumped Ziggy Hood for the starting left-end job halfway through 2013.
“He’s a great team leader,” said Heyward, who will be playing his fourth season with Keisel. “He provides more depth to us. He’s going to give advice to me and all the other guys. It never hurts to have a guy of his stature in the locker room.”
Keisel, though, wants more.
“I feel like I can still play. I haven’t bled with these guys. A lot of them I have — well, some of them I have. But a lot of them I have no idea who they are … I’ll step back and try to get a gauge on some of these guys.
“We have work to do.”
Plenty of room to improve
So, was their performance against Philadelphia an indication of what the Steelers can expect from their defense in 2014?
“It better not be or we have a long season ahead of us,” Heyward said. “There’s a big level of disappointment … handle it or we’re going to be in for a long season.”
The Steelers were gouged up the middle by Eagles running backs and had no answer for their quick-throwing passing attack, while struggling to pressure the quarterbacks.
“If we don’t correct it, guys are going to continue to run the same plays over and over until we get sick of it,” Heyward said.
Roster about to dwindle
The Steelers will return to work today at their South Side facility and have off Sunday before resuming practices heading into the traditional preseason finale Thursday against the Carolina Panthers at Heinz Field.
They must reduce their roster to 75 by 4 p.m. Tuesday, but some of that heavy off-lifting could take place today. To revive an old Chuck Noll line, “Cutting isn’t the problem; stopping is.”
Quarterback Landry Jones, who has a small and unimpressive body of work since the Steelers drafted him in the fourth round in 2013, did not play Thursday night.
Neither did undrafted rookie quarterback Brendon Kay. That likely did not happen because Tomlin used Ben Roethlisberger longer than planned and virtually the entire third quarter. More than one-third of the 90-man roster did not play.
One of the slivers of good news that evolved Thursday night was the play of backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. He guided the Steelers on two touchdown drives that ended with scoring passes, one a perfect 33-yarder to Darrius Heyward-Bey in the back of the end zone.
Gradkowski completed 8 of 11 passes for 105 yards and had a 142.0 passer rating.
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @ EdBouchette.
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