Brett Keisel is often the forgotten man on the Steelers' vaunted defense. His injured counterpart, Aaron Smith, is widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, 3-4 defensive ends in the league.
Keisel doesn’t get anywhere near the same level of credit. If he was a linebacker, he would be the 2008 edition of Larry Foote, the guy we all liked but didn't really consider to be that critical of a player.
The only thing he has on Foote is a cool nickname, "Diesel." But, both players assumed an "everyman" role on a defense loaded with high-profile stars.
I was actually mildly surprised when the Steelers re-signed Keisel, figuring he was expendable when they drafted Evander Hood.
At the time, I would have preferred to see them focus first on Ryan Clark or Casey Hampton, since neither player has an obvious long-term replacement on the roster.
I'm beginning to think we may be undervaluing what Keisel, a former seventh-round pick, means to the team.
Against the Vikings, he was the Steelers' most important "offensive" player. By my count, Keisel set up two touchdowns. That would be one more than Ben Roethlisberger, one more than the Steelers wide receiver corps, and two more than their corps of running backs.
It was Keisel who beat one of the highest regarded offensive linemen in football, Steve Hutchinson, to strip the football away from Brett Favre and set up the first defensive touchdown in the fourth quarter.
We'll all remember watching Lamarr Woodley weave and dodge his way to paydirt. But, it was Keisel who set the play up and Woodley who was the beneficiary.
Fast-forward to the second defensive touchdown. Minnesota was moving the ball seemingly at ease and looked poised to not just kick a tying field goal, but to put the ball in the end zone for the win.
If you didn't think that was going to happen as a Steelers fan, you have more faith than me.
The Vikings call a screen pass to Chester Taylor. Keisel smells it out, showing superb instincts.
He slides down the line, creating a traffic jam around the intended target. Favre throws it anyway.
Just as the ball arrives, Keisel hits Taylor, who lets the ball sail through his fingers into the waiting arms of Keyaron Fox. Again, we'll remember watching Fox zigging and zagging his way to the end zone while I shouted something resembling "Get down!" at the television.
But, without Keisel correctly diagnosing the play, the interception doesn't happen.
Keisel wears the number of my all-time favorite Steeler, Levon Kirkland. Today, he did that number proud.
A Couple Other Thoughts
• For all the criticism he seems to be taking on the loss, I was surprised at how good Brett Favre played. Despite heavy pressure and very good coverage on all but the underneath routes, he nailed big pass after big pass.
I thought he would be terrible this season. Judging on what I saw in today's game, I was wrong. If he can make it through the long season healthy, the Vikings will be a tough out come playoff time.
• Considering I never heard of him before this season, Sidney Rice is one heck of a wide receiver. Ike Taylor had him blanketed repeatedly, but Rice adjusted to the ball and made some very tough catches. That catch he made on the sideline was a thing of beauty.
The fact that Favre threw at him repeatedly, despite the tight coverage, showed a lot of trust in his ability to beat the cornerback one-on-one with the ball in the air. He was rewarded for that trust.
• No matter how great a running back is at moving the ball, none of that matters if he does not first take care of the football. I suspect Rashard Mendenhall, for all the brilliance he has shown as a runner, may be back in the doghouse that Mike Tomlin claims doesn't exist.
• Speaking of ball security, was anybody else mildly uncomfortable watching Santonio Holmes rumbling down the field with a "please strip me" sign plastered on the back of his helmet on his big catch in the fourth quarter?
While I appreciated the big gain, I hope the coaches point out to him how easily that play could have gone sour when reviewing the tape.
• The Steelers have a flair for the dramatic. They appear to be incapable of putting a game away before the final couple minutes, continuing a trend that was present to a lesser degree last season. I all but expected the Percy Harvin return.
I've gotten so used to the weekly fantastic finishes, that all I did was shrug. It had to happen.
• Speaking of that kickoff return, I almost think it would be a worth a roster spot to bring in a kickoff specialist who can put it in the end zone on a regular basis.
Jeff Reed was criticized heavily for his lame attempt at a tackle. Frankly, that didn't bother me.
Kickers aren't supposed to do much more than pretend to try and make tackles, although Reed at least should have pretended a bit harder.
But, the short kick is a different story. Even assuming the coverage doesn't fall apart, you are still likely spotting about 20 yards of field position to an already dangerous offense. Not good.
I know roster spots come at a premium, but the Steelers have now given up two potentially lethal touchdown returns and I'd be surprised if they don't give up a couple more before the end of the season with the short kickoffs.
Is there not a position we could afford one less active backup in favor of a guy with a canon for a foot who can kickoff?
The good news: I think these Steelers will be a better overall team than the one that won the Super Bowl last year. The bad news: they will have to be better because there are more elite teams this year than in 2008.
Considering how good the top 10 or so teams are looking, it will be tough sledding come playoff time.
The AFC North race is going to be can't miss television for the rest of the year. During both of the Steelers' recent Super Bowl runs, two teams from the division featured prominently.
In 2005, they won the Super Bowl while losing the division. It is not out of question that could happen again.