Brett Keisel Could Help Cam Thomas Assume Dual Role Along D-Line

Technical difficulties prevented me from getting my article on Cam Thomas yesterday posted in the morning. Mechanical difficulties—e.g. spending seemingly half the day in a bell tower—prevented me from getting to this topic sooner.

And Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin obviously chose yesterday to give Steve McLendon a day off just to ensure that this article would no longer be as timely as it should have been, had I been able to get to it when I wanted to.

But with that out of the way, it’s time to address the backup nose tackle position, and as we saw yesterday in practice, the Steelers’ current Plan A is a tricky one, using their starting left defensive end in the middle of the defensive line, where he was a starter a year ago for the San Diego Chargers.

It’s a simple enough switch if it comes before a game. Thomas can simply start at nose tackle and remain there for the duration of the game while somebody else fills in at defensive end.

But who gives McLendon a rest when healthy? It’s a tough task asking Thomas to play two positions in the same game while getting little rest. This is especially true of the early games on the schedule, when the Steelers like to rotate their defensive line more.

Do the Steelers really plan to use Thomas as McLendon’s backup to give him a rest? That could depend on how much trust they have in Daniel McCullers or Hebron Fangupo, which, as it currently stands, probably isn’t much, at least in terms of relying on them for stretches at a time.

It’s not an impossible proposition to ask of Thomas, but it will require a healthy stable of defensive ends, and if the Steelers aren’t sure that they have that, they can always pick up the phone. I’m sure you see where I’m going here.

As we saw in practice yesterday, rookie second-rounder Stephon Tuitt got his first ‘start’ in practice in the base defense with Thomas shifting over one spot to the nose.

But while it’s still early in the process, and those within the organization are reportedly raving internally amongst themselves about his potential, it may be too much to ask of Tuitt—and of defensive line coach John Mitchell—to have the rookie ready to start come opening day.

As an interesting tidbit from a source quoted by Jim Wexell in a recent piece reveals, the Steelers are still trying to wean Tuitt out of his “sprinters’ stance”, saying that “he’s still thinking 4-3”, and that “until that gets worked out, he’ll give us something on third down”. In other words, he’s currently projected to be a sub-package, situational pass rusher for now.

Of course, once Tuitt is ready to start, Thomas can move to a Chris Hoke/Al Woods role as the first lineman off the bench at any defensive line position, and this conversation will be moot. Until then, the Steelers will need defensive ends to spell both ends while simultaneously compensating for Thomas’ extra reps at nose tackle.

Second-year Brian Arnfelt has seemingly had a steady and quiet camp, while there have been smatterings of positivity about Nick Williams, Josh Mauro, and Ethan Hemer, but they all have a long way to go not much more than a week into camp before they can be trusted in a rotation.

You won’t find a more trustworthy 3-4 end at a moment’s notice than Brett Keisel, however, and if the Steelers really intend to start Thomas at end while simultaneously rotating him with McLendon at nose tackle, then I couldn’t possibly think of a better player to call up to absorb some of those extraneous snaps that will be lying around.

At this point in his career, the Steelers wouldn’t be looking at Keisel as a starter, but he could certainly be an impactful role player in a rotation in both the base and nickel defenses.

Of course, this is an awful lot of contemplation about defensive line snap counts in the second week of training camp. By the end of the preseason, perhaps Tuitt could emerge as the starter, or somebody like Arnfelt or McCullers could earn the trust of the coaching staff enough to justify putting him on the field, thereby solving this self-made conundrum without the need to disturb The Beard.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • AndyR34

    Nice analysis, Matt! You obviously spend a lot of time thinking of this stuff…no wonder you were stuck in that bell tower! LOL!

  • grw1960

    It is early yet, but right now on my 53 man guess.
    I have Keisel vs. McCullers for the 52 nd spot and
    TE Palmer vs. 6th wr DHB vs. a 4th RB, Harris or other for the 53d spot..

  • Eric MacLaurin

    I’m starting to get comfortable with the DL and like the draft class too much to sign keys and lose a rookie.

    I’m hoping he signs week 2 after an injury opens a roster spot.

    This is such a deep class of rookies we should be giving serious thought to letting marginal and or last year guys go (or wait) in favor of potential starters that might hurt us a little bit this year but are sure to be better next year.

  • Steelers@2010

    At some point you have to cut the cord and simply move on. If they bring the Diesel back, cool. But if they do not, I really like the next Generation of Defensive Linemen for the Steelers. Look at the energy and enthusiasm being reported daily from camp. Gone are the aging veterans, in with the youth, speed, athleticism and energy. Yes, with that does come some growing pains due to being inexperience. But I think the time has come.

  • Ahmad

    I really wish people would get off the return of Keisel bandwagon and just move on. The DL depth is fine without him as the young guys are progressing nicely. If you’re worried about Cam Thomas playing too many snaps early on then just throw Tuitt into the fire like we did with Jarvis Jones last year. I know he’s still a rookie and he still has some stuff to clean up but experience is the best teacher IMO. Plus with the improvements made on defense and offense this year, it should be enough to compensate for any rookie mistakes Tuitt would make. Bringing back Keisel would only further delay the development of Keisel. So unless there are injuries or the younger guys start to slack home, Keisel should remain unsigned.

  • ergomesh

    Really want to hear some reports on Brian Arnfelt. I see him as the Hoke fill in for the ends and I recall it being reported somewhere that him and heyward where working out this offseason a bunch.

  • jsmitt

    I agree 100%. Just say no to the beard!

  • steelant

    im sorry I love keisel but some times you just have to move on if we bring keisel back then tuitt probably never get in and we just spend a 2nd round pick on him at least let us just let him play as a third down situational pass rusher

  • charles

    Agree completely. Would add that Thomas is mediocre at best and has enough NFL time to retire.

  • Toddy Bravo

    I could not agree more about it being time to move on.

  • Matt Manzo

    It makes sense when talking about it like that, Thomas having to play 2 spots during a game, that’s hard. But I’m really hoping Arnfelt and Mcullers can step into some role on the line!

  • Chris Maxwell

    These guys just won’t let it go, second week of training camp and they still haven’t brought him back yet or Harrison, so that means that they are not coming back. Plain and simple. SMH for the 200 time, Keisel wasn’t making Probowl type plays the last several seasons so why would the team be interested in an old aging player.

  • Chris Maxwell

    Dave can’t even have a decent podcast without mentioning his favorite Steeler of all time.

  • cencalsteeler

    I love Kiesel, but I just don’t think it’s smart to take a roster spot away from someone at this point. Speed dial only if thinned out at the position due to injuries.

  • Brendon Glad

    It’s times like these where I thank the sports gods that I chose the Steelers to root for as a child. The class of the organization shines through when worthy players like Kiesel, Harrison, and others have shown the willingness to wait for a call from the Steelers, as opposed to securing a position with another team. I fully expect Kiesel to be a Steeler in 2014 at some point. It probably should be taken as a great testament to the new guys, and also health, if he is not. But until he proves otherwise, I’ll still take him on my team any day.

  • Brendon Glad

    I’m also very happy to see Tuitt being impressive, for my own ego’s sake. I asked for Tuitt a month before the draft on this very site, had my wishes granted by the FB gods, and so I am a bit emotionally invested in him even more than I am the average Steelers draft pick. And I did mention Aaron Smith when I spoke of Tuitt. So if I get 80-85% of Smith, I think we all will be happy. And he’s too young to set that as his ceiling. I hope he’s 120% of Aaron Smith in my dream world. That’s what rookies provide to fans from may to Sept…hopes and dreams.

  • Matthew Marczi

    For what it’s worth, I’d much rather the Steelers manage to make do without Keisel and that players like Arnfelt and McCullers are able to assume roles in the rotation this year. This was just a thought experiment, and Keisel’s just a small part of it as a sort of contingency plan.

  • Randy G.

    Seriously sing Keisel.

  • keth Naab

    agreed Matt. Beard is a folk hero. We all love him in Pittsburgh, but it’s time to move on. We drafted 2 1st rounders and a 2nd rounder to play DE in the last half decade. Ziggy was a great dude but a poor fit. Heyward and now Tuitt seem tailor-made for the job. Let them do what they do. Thomas can be the 1st backup off the bench while we try to get Mauro and Arnfelt up to speed. Hopefully McCullers can be a primary sub at NT, and then we’ll have 5 DL who give us complete depth and allow us to rotate the DL as needed. Tuitt is a beast, give him a chance. It looks like the real talent in the front 7 might start to tilt toward the DL. Let Ironhead Jr. and Tuitt do their thing

  • IckyD

    Keisel was as good last year as ever- i don’t get how he isn’t on the team this year unless they’re just letting him skip OTA’s and training camp to be signed just as the season starts??

  • IckyD

    Arnfelt and Hemer are favorites of mine. I don’t know a lot about the other ones but those two are 110% guys with smarts and fire…