PITTSBURGH, Pa. - If things had worked out a little differently a decade ago, Brett Keisel(notes) never would have needed "Da Beard" to get noticed.
Taken in the seventh round of the 2002 draft out of BYU, Keisel at the time wondered if the Pittsburgh Steelers would groom him to play outside linebacker. The franchise has built a consistently dominant defense over the years partially based upon converting pass-rushing college defensive ends into All Pro-calibre outside linebackers.
Pittsburgh elected to keep the 6-foot-5, 285-pound Keisel on the line — a position that, in Dick LeBeau's 3-4 scheme, isn't as glamorous.
While linebackers such as James Harrison(notes) and LaMarr Woodley(notes) rack up sacks, the job description for ends Keisel and Aaron Smith(notes) is more anonymous. Keisel's teammates recognize and appreciate his work, even if few others do.
Off one of his best games, Keisel is earning more respect as one of the key cogs of what is the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense.
"He's one of the best out there," Pittsburgh defensive end Ziggy Hood(notes) said. "He's a very under-the-radar guy who makes a lot of big splash plays. It's not even the big plays that make you go, 'Wow,' it's the other things that he does that catch your attention if you're watching the tape. That's something I idolize in him."
It wasn't until Keisel grew his now-trademark beard that outsiders began to take notice. It's likely a coincidence Keisel was named to his first Pro Bowl last season as his busy facial hair grew so long it made him one of the stars of the week leading up to the Super Bowl. But "Da Beard," as Keisel calls it, has brought the 33-year-old more acclaim and popularity than years of swallowing up blockers and dozens of batted-down passes ever could.
Keisel tied a career high with two sacks among his season-high six tackles and batted down a Blaine Gabbert pass in a 17-13 win over Jacksonville this past Sunday.
"Brett's had a lot of great games for us," LeBeau said. "That was one of his better games. He's one of the guys that I kind of count on being there every week, and he's going to play well every week. He was a little more evident with some of the plays that he made in the game, but week in and week out, he's usually where he's supposed to be."
The Steelers (4-2) play at Arizona (1-4) on Sunday.
Since LeBeau first was defensive co-ordinator in 1994, the Steelers have had six outside linebackers named All Pro — and no defensive linemen.
For a player who's been with a high-profile franchise for 10 years and is in his sixth season starting on a defense that's been No. 1 in the league three times in that span, Keisel's beard is more known than he is. Not only does "Da Beard" have its own official T-shirt, Twitter account, Facebook page and website, it's public shaving earned money for charity after the Super Bowl in February.
"I'm glad he grew his beard because it's actually allowed him to get some notoriety and recognition," safety Ryan Clark said. "As a 3-4 defensive end, when you have LaMarr and James on the outside, everything has to go by the guys inside. These guys are critical in stopping the run and keeping our linebackers clean. And what Brett has been doing for this team year in and year out is amazing, and we're just excited he's finally getting recognized for it."
Keisel has been noticeable this season because of how much better the defense has performed since he returned from missing two games with a knee sprain. His tip of a Matt Hasselbeck pass Oct. 9, for example, led to a Woodley interception that helped put that game away.
A former high school basketball star, Keisel is athletic enough that the Steelers have, at times, utilized him like they do Troy Polamalu, something of a freelancer who can drop into pass coverage and/or move around the field — no small feat for a 285-pound lineman.
"He's probably as good an athlete as I've ever seen at defensive end in terms of running, jumping, hand-eye co-ordination," LeBeau said. "We've talked for years that he could be a linebacker, but (defensive line coach John Mitchell) won't let us touch him."
Told that, Keisel laughed. Who knows? If Keisel had been put at linebacker, maybe he'd be the one — and not, say, Harrison — registering sacks, earning multiple Pro Bowl starts, getting league Defensive Player of the Year votes.
"It's tough to be a scheme like this," Keisel said. "You have to be unselfish. That's the first thing they preach when you come in here as a young guy: 'We don't expect you to make a lot of plays. We expect you to go your job, to hold the point of attack, to keep a couple guys on you and free up our linebackers.'
"That's how it's always been here. We kind of relish that. We'll take LaMarr and James being the great players they are … and winning Super Bowls. That's what matters to us, is winning."
But winning two Super Bowl rings didn't get Keisel the endorsement deals. "Da Beard," however, has. Keisel — and some exaggerated facial hair — appear in a shampoo commercial along with Polamalu and his celebrated hair.
Just like Pro Bowl nominations, commercials just get don't filmed all that often featuring 3-4 defensive ends. For "Da Beard," they do.
"You know, the beard's done a lot for me, it really has," Keisel said. "It's been fun, I've had great responses from my teammates, from Steeler Nation, so that part of it's been a lot of fun. I can't say that the beard is the reason my game is what it is, because it's not. But it does help me. It makes me unique and I like that."
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