What Brett Keisel's Return Means for the Steelers Defense

Curt PopejoyContributor IAugust 20, 2014

OAKLAND, CA - OCTOBER 27:  Brett Keisel #99 of the Pittsburgh Steelers reacts after making a tackle against the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum on October 27, 2013 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

If you are at all nostalgic, then you are probably pretty excited about the move the Pittsburgh Steelers made on Tuesday. ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter broke the news on Tuesday that the defensive end Brett Keisel had been re-signed by the Steelers.

Steelers and DE Brett Keisel have reached agreement. Keisel back to Pittsburgh, per league source.

— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 19, 2014

The thought was initially that Keisel might head west to Arizona and sign with the Cardinals after losing defensive lineman Darnell Dockett for the year with a knee injury. However, Keisel opted for loyalty, and it appears he is going to finish his NFL career in the city where it started. 

Keisel has spent the past 11 seasons with the Steelers, accumulating 391 tackles and 29 sacks. According to Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, the contract is for two years, but financial details were not disclosed yet. The two-year structure of the deal assures that it is more than the league minimum, but probably not much more.

It's a two-year contract for Keisel

— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly_Trib) August 20, 2014

Let me apologize in advance that I do not share the enthusiasm of many Steelers fans about bringing Keisel back into the fold at this point. Can he have a positive impact on this defense? And what is the cost of having him on the roster beyond the contract?

Dec 29, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel (99) pumps the crowd up against the Cleveland Browns in the second half at Heinz Field. The Steelers won the game, 20-7. Mandatory Credit: Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

Before we explore Keisel's role and impact, it's important to understand a little more about the Steelers' defensive front. In their base defense, Pittsburgh employs a 3-4 defense, meaning one defensive tackle and two ends. There was a time when this defense was a novelty in the league, but it has become much more commonplace in recent years.

Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

The Steelers also employ four defensive linemen in their sub-packages, so there are plenty of occasions when ends become tackles, and their responsibilities adjust with it.  

I really didn’t think Keisel was coming back to Pittsburgh to start. I was hoping that Cameron Heyward was entrenched on one side and the combo of Stephon Tuitt and Cam Thomas would hold it down on the other side.

However, according to ESPN’s Scott Brown, Keisel has already been listed as the starter opposite Heyward.

Steelers list B. Keisel as starter at right DE with Stephon Tuitt behind him. Cam Heyward is starter at left DE with Cam Thomas behind him.

— Scott Brown (@ScottBrown_ESPN) August 20, 2014

This seems like putting the cart before the horse at this point. Thomas and Tuitt have played well. This could have to do with Thomas sliding inside, and best-case scenario is Tuitt will be brought along slowly. Regardless, starter status already is a bit surprising.

A big part of Keisel's impact on the roster will depend on how many defensive linemen they opt for on the final 53-man roster. If the Steelers choose to only keep six, it is likely that rookie Josh Mauro finds himself on the practice squad.

Don Wright/Associated Press

This would be unfortunate, as Mauro has played well and has much more upside going forward. There's no guarantee with the proliferation of 3-4 teams that Mauro would even be safe on the practice squad. 

However, this could extend beyond just the defensive line. If Pittsburgh chooses to keep a seventh defensive lineman, that would be at the expense of either an an inside linebacker or a defensive back. Young players with potential would be relegated to the practice squad or worse for the sake of a 35-year-old defensive end.

In the final analysis, the expansion of the practice squads likely played a role in this signing. The play of the defensive line has been good, so it is less about talent and more about numbers. If Pittsburgh thinks they can stash two extra young players on the practice squad, Keisel's experience and leadership would be valuable.

Let's all hope Keisel can bring a veteran element and some leadership to all this young talent. This defense has a shot to be special this year. If Keisel proves to be the spark the defensive line needs, then this signing will seem like pure genius.