Camp Watch: New diesel at defensive end

One of the surprising rookie camp participants for the Pittsburgh Steelers was 3rd year defensive end Rodney Bailey. We speculated that perhaps Rodney was pushing to make the move from part time rush end to fulltime run stopper. That may still be the case, but more likely Bailey was feeling the heat from 2nd year player Brett Keisel.

There is nothing wrong with Rodney Bailey's 5.5 sacks last season, mostly as defensive tackle in the dime, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are beginning to see a bit of Aaron Smith (7.5 sacks in 2001) in Brett Keisel.

Though Smith was drafted higher than Keisel, Smith actually had the quieter rookie season. Smith and Keisel were both around 6'5" and 270 pounds during their first seasons. Both bulked up considerably during their first off-seasons in hopes of making an impact.

"It's at the opposite end of the spectrum," Smith said during camp in 2000. "Last year, I didn't know what to expect. I didn't understand the defense. I wasn't physically strong enough to compete. This year, I focused on learning the defense and getting stronger. It's been a huge difference."

Smith had put on 15-20 pounds and looked forward to contributing much more to the Steelers defense. What about Keisel?

"Brett Keisel is a guy who came out of nowhere last year, and now has put on about 18 pounds," Bill Cowher said recently. "He is going to give us more depth there."

While Smith had some trouble adjusting from Division II college football to the NFL, Cowher has already let everyone know that Keisel is his kind of guy. Many defensive players have moved up through the ranks in Pittsburgh by first shining on special teams.

"I remember a guy named Dean Prader when I was playing back with the Buffalo Bills," Cowher said at a press conference following Keisel's smashing debut against the Carolina Panthers. "He used to play our five and he used to run down the railroad tracks that are what we called running down the hashes. If you got in his way, you were just cringing if you knew you had to block him because there was no way you were blocking this guy. He was 270 pounds. I just envisioned Brett being this way and next thing you know Brett gets out there and is running over people and he is getting down there as fast as some of our running backs and linebackers. He is still down there faster than them on the kickoff coverage."

"He has just become a force. We then put him on punt because, if he is running this well on kickoff, why couldn't he do it on punt? He gets down there and makes a fumble recovery the other day. He is now on punt and kickoff return. Maybe it is good. He is a first year player and he is just starting to play. Maybe he only had four or five games left in him, but we are going to try to get everything out of him that he has left. He is throwing his body around right now and he is giving us energy in the kicking game and in our coverage teams."

Keisel runs very well for a big guy and brings a lot of emotion to the game. In camp last summer, he caught the eye of a few beat reporters, including's own Jim Wexell. Wexell commented that Keisel's speed was a real eye-opener.

Wexell reported, after the 2002 season was over, that the Steelers did not have much in the way of plans for upgrading the defensive line and the QB pressure up front, with the Steelers specifically mentioning Keisel by name as an up-and-comer.

Smith was able to crack the starting lineup in his second season when DE Chris Sullivan went down with a back injury. Smith made the most of the opportunity and certainly benefited from the increased playing time.

"That makes a big difference," Smith said about being pressed into duty early during the 2000 season. "Coming off the bench is hard. At least when you're starting, you know you're starting from the get-go and you can get into a rhythm. When you come off the bench, you're kind of cold and it's hard to get into a rhythm. The guy you're going against has been in there two, maybe three quarters and you're going against him cold and stiff."

If Kimo Von Oelhoffen, who was banged up last season and is not getting any younger, should happen to suffer an injury in 2003, all indications currently point to Keisel, not Bailey, getting the nod.

At the very least, Keisel will get the chance to push Bailey for the position of tackle in the dime. He may even see some time in the new nickel that defensive coordinator Tim Lewis is working on.

A bigger and stronger Keisel will be one to watch in camp, just like Smith was during the summer of 2000. If he can prove that he can carry the added weight while maintaining his impressive speed, the Steelers may have found the defensive end to replace Von Oelhoffen and compliment the play of Smith.

Jim Russell

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