Steelers notebook: Keisel always hoped to return

| Friday, Aug. 22, 2014, 7:24 p.m.

Defensive end Brett Keisel doesn't know which side he'll play or how much he'll get on the field.

“We really didn't get into that too much. They just said, ‘We want you back,' ” said Keisel, who re-signed with the Steelers this week but did not play Thursday in Philadelphia.

Coach Mike Tomlin also said Keisel's role hasn't been finalized. But Keisel, who turns 36 next month, provides depth — and gives the Steelers options — along a relatively thin defensive line.

“I've felt since about March, when I decided I still wanted to play football, that something would happen. I hoped it would be here, and for a long time ... nothing happened,” Keisel said. “It was kind of weird like, ‘What am I going to do now?' ”

Now that Keisel is back, defensive end Cam Thomas can be shifted inside at times to take Steve McLendon's place at nose tackle.

Cam Heyward already has shifted to Keisel's longtime spot at left defensive end, so the Steelers must decide whether to keep him there or move him back to right end when Keisel plays.

Spence injures knee

Linebacker Sean Spence's two-year comeback from a career-threatening knee injury was so inspirational to his teammates that inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons almost got teary-eyed when Spence played Aug. 9 against the New York Giants.

Now that comeback might be on hold.

During the preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday, Spence injured the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, coach Mike Tomlin said. A third-round draft pick in 2012, Spence sat out that season and 2013 with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee, a dislocated kneecap and nerve damage.

Flag days

It's not just the fans who are railing against all the penalties being called. It's also the players and coaches.

The crackdown on defensive back contact downfield is contributing to high penalty totals. The Steelers and Eagles combined for 27 penalties for 209 yards, with 92 yards on Pittsburgh.

League-wide, penalties are up more than 40 percent from the 2013 preseason.

Run deficit

Improving the run defense was a priority for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, whose unit tumbled from No. 2 against the run in 2012 to 21st in '13.

Through three preseason games, the Steelers are last in the NFL, allowing an average of 167.7 yards rushing per game. The Eagles ran for 182 yards.

“It's about defeating blocks and making tackles,” Tomlin said. “It didn't look like we were coming off enough blocks consistently enough to shut down their running game.”

Offensively challenged

Outside of tight end Heath Miller (five catches, 53 yards, one touchdown) and receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (three catches, 54 yards), it was difficult to find standout performances on offense.

Ben Roethlisberger never got into a groove, and neither did a running game that was expected to get a lot of work in the last major preseason tune-up.

“I couldn't tell you where we broke down. There were mess-ups here and there,” said receiver Markus Wheaton (two catches, 24 yards). “You come out first drive and get going, and that continues throughout the game. We came out, and we weren't where we wanted to be early on.”

Odds and ends

Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones said he is glad the Eagles aren't on the Steelers' regular-season schedule. “Those guys had a good offense, and they ran it well,” he said. “We've seen some film of it, but they did their thing and executed and they capitalized on our mistakes.” ... The Steelers' performance left at least one fan irate. Rapper Snoop Dogg took to Instagram to implore Tomlin to fire offensive coordinator Todd Haley. “Get us a real offensive coordinator,” he said in his profanity-laced tirade. “We ain't won a playoff game since we had (him).”

Ken Laird of TribLive Radio contributed to this report. Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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