PITTSBURGH (AP) - If things had worked out a little differently a decade ago, Brett Keisel 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-caliber outside linebackers.
While linebackers such as James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley rack up sacks, the job description for ends Keisel and Aaron Smith 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 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.
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 web site, 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.