Can Keisel Stabilize Steelers' Nickel?

Modifications are being made to an alignment that proved to be a preseason embarrassment.

After allowing 7.3 yards per carry while playing 70 percent of the available first-team snaps through the first three preseason games, the Steelers' nickel defense -- seemingly the new base defense -- allowed only two yards on one carry in the finale against Carolina.

The nickel defense overall -- after allowing 507 of the 625 total first-team yards in the first three preseason games -- allowed only 20 of Carolina's 72 first-team yards.

Was there an adjustment?

"Let me take the credit right now," defensive end Brett Keisel said with a laugh. "Everything's good now that I'm back there!"

Keisel, of course, was kidding. But, he was in there, plugged right into the nickel, once as one of three defensive ends on a four-man line.

Keisel added some much-needed heft, but it was only against a Carolina team that used a fullback much of the time.

The Cleveland Browns are expected to use a similarly plodding fullback/two-tight end scheme in Sunday's opener at Heinz Field, so the nickel that panicked Steelers fans in the preseason may not even be tested.

But what if it is? What is the plan if the Browns give chase to the Steelers' preseason defensive nightmare?

"You'll just have to wait and see," said end Cameron Heyward.

Heyward did say that the nickel has been a point of emphasis since the embarrassment at Philadelphia in the third preseason game.

"Yeah. We looked at a lot of things," Heyward said. "We understand we have to play better in nickel situations. People don't want to see us in our base (with a nose tackle). Fine. We're pretty good in a base front. As for the nickel, we have to get better, and we've worked on it. We're correcting things and making some modifications."

Does Heyward trust in those modifications?

"I trust in everything," he said. "If I don't, I'm in the wrong place. One team, one mind, and we'll go from there."

Keisel, no doubt, will be a key factor in the Steelers' modifications. Against Carolina he even stood up as an inside linebacker in the Steelers' "Rover" defense, and once as a 4-3 end. He brings the hybrid type of end who's fast enough to provide pressure on the quarterback and stout enough to stand up against the run.

Those are the preferred nickel defenders, and now the Steelers have three for the defensive line in Keisel, Heyward and prize rookie Stephon Tuitt.

Mike Tomlin, of course, wouldn't give any hints at his Tuesday press conference.

"We’re sorting through all of those things, so it would be premature to talk about adjustments," Tomlin said.

He was asked to critique Keisel's performance against Carolina, only a week after the soon-to-be 36-year-old re-signed with the team.

"It was above the line," Tomlin said. "I still think we’re just getting a sense of what Brett is capable of from the snap standpoint. That will have a lot to do with his utilization in the game, along with the performance of others. I think that’s just growing organically and I’m not opposed to it growing in any direction. And I’m sure Brett is not opposed to it growing, particularly if it means him playing more than he played last weekend. He’s going to be an asset to us and I just look forward to continuing to watch him round himself into form."

Keisel, being a 13-year veteran in Pittsburgh, clearly understands the importans of "smashing the run," as he calls it, in coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense. Even as the evolving rules make it easier to throw the ball, both the Eagles and New York Giants showed the Steelers what can happen if they defend the pass, and seemingly only the pass. The leaky run defense was a slower but more certain death.

"We're trying some different things right now and working some different guys together," Keisel said of Monday's practice. "I think some of the problem was a lack of game-planning, and some of it was technique, and some of it was pad level. There are a lot of those things that have to run together for you to be successful. You can say you're in the right gap, but if you're not playing with good technique and pad level you'll get pushed all over the place."

The Steelers were no doubt "pushed all over the place" this preseason. It may have had something to do with a front four utilizing defensive ends as tackles and outside linebackers as ends.

Is there a premium in Pittsburgh right now on true defensive ends?

"Yeah," Keisel said. "You've got to be able to set the edge. You've got to be tough on the edge with all these speed receivers and the new things they're doing with option and stuff like that. So a lot of teams are doing that stuff, and if your edge breaks down, you're in trouble."

The Steelers have witnessed that carnage first hand. They're hoping it's in the rearview mirror.


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