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Harris: Reliable Kirschke fills in nicely

It takes Travis Kirschke a little longer to lift his 6-foot-3, 298-pound frame out of bed on Mondays after a game than it did, say, when he was 25 — 10 years and an NFL lifetime ago.

Yesterday, it probably took Kirschke even longer to work out the knots and ease the soreness in his body.

Kirschke started at left defensive end Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. He replaced Aaron Smith, who will miss the remainder of the season with a torn rotator cuff. Sunday's performance was the most that Kirschke has played since starting at right defensive end against Baltimore in last year's final regular season game.

Turns out the stiffness in Kirschke's back prior to the Cleveland game wasn't a deterrent.

Now if he can just do something about his neck.

"I was a little concerned about how my back was going to hold up. But that actually felt pretty good until my neck," said Kirschke, who recorded three tackles in the Steelers' 27-14 win. "It was friendly fire too. (Brett) Keisel came in and nailed me from the side late in the game, and I lost feeling in my arm."

Less than an hour after the game, Kirschke, 35, insisted his neck was fine. His back, too.

Injuries, experience has taught him, are as much a part of the game as helmets and shoulder pads.

"That's football. Things happen," said Kirschke, who has 12 starts in his six seasons with the Steelers.

"Things happen" could be the story line of Kirschke's pro football career.

He led all defensive linemen in tackles his senior year at UCLA, but his name wasn't called in the 1997 draft. He signed with Detroit, becoming the only rookie free agent to make the Lions' season-opening roster. He appeared in three games his first season and recorded two tackles in the team's playoff game against Tampa Bay.

Kirschke spent the majority of his second season on injured reserve. He opened his third year making the shift to defensive end during training camp after playing most of his college career and first two pro seasons at defensive tackle. He started seven games and had five tackles in Detroit's playoff game against Washington that year.

He started a total of three games over the next three years before signing with San Francisco and starting 15 games with the 49ers in 2003. He joined the Steelers a year later.

The Steelers have kept Kirschke around for times like these. When Smith was lost for the year, there were a lot of long faces in the locker room because Smith's a great player, not because Kirschke can't get the job done.

Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons said the play of Kirschke and the entire defensive line helped him rack up two sacks and a pair of forced fumbles against the Browns.

The Steelers held Cleveland to 197 total yards and 3.9 yards per play.

"Kirschke did an awesome job," Timmons said.

Kirschke's teammates believe in him and respect him. Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison played the role of aspiring television reporter in the locker room after the Cleveland game when he grabbed a microphone and conducted a mock interview with Kirschke as the cameras whirred.

"Do you feel they were running the ball at you because Aaron wasn't in there?" Harrison asked Kirschke.

"No, I didn't. They just stuck to what they normally do," Kirschke replied.

The usually reclusive Harrison was enjoying himself so much that he asked three more questions before Kirschke stopped him.

"Are you trying to get a (reporting) job?" Kirschke asked Harrison.

Harrison smiled.

Kirschke appears to be fitting in as one of the guys away from the field as well as he does on it.

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