Keisel, Clark face uncertain futures with Steelers
Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel, left, tosses a sweatband to fans while free safety Ryan Clark throws his jersey to fans while leaving Heinz Field Sunday. The two veterans might have played their final game as Steelers in PIttsburgh’s 20-7 win over Cleveland.
Steelers free safety Ryan Clark tosses his jersey to fans as he walks off Heinz Field following a 20-7 win over the Cleveland Browns in an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday.
PITTSBURGH – Brett Keisel choked up and had to turn away for a moment as he spoke with reporters about his future following the Steelers’ 20-7 victory over the Cleveland Browns Sunday.
Regardless of whether the Steelers’ season continued or not, the defensive end knew there was a good chance he had played his final game at Heinz Field.
“I told my guys in the d-line room that it’s always different,” said Keisel, who was selected by the Steelers in the seventh round of the 2002 draft.
“This will be the last time that we get to stand together in that spot with this group of guys. The way the league is, you change every year, no matter what.
“It was emotional. I’m just proud to be a Steeler and proud to have helped finish this thing strong.”
Safety Ryan Clark was in the same situation.
Clark, whom the Steelers signed as a free agent from Washington in 2006 to replace Chris Hope, like Keisel is not under contract for 2014.
Following Sunday’s game, Clark gave his jersey and cleats to a fan before heading to the locker room for perhaps the final time.
“It could be the last game,” said Clark, who like Keisel is a 12-year veteran. “If it is, I thought it would be cool to give somebody the jersey and the cleats that I wore in the last game. I thought it would be a nice souvenir for the fans who did come out and stayed in the rain for a 7-8 football team, who a lot of people thought didn’t have a lot to play for. I thought it would be a cool gesture if it is my last game.”
Keisel and Clark are two of the 23 free agents the Steelers, who finished the season 8-8, just missing the playoffs, will have to make decisions about over the next two months before the free agency period begins March 11.
Both would like to return to Pittsburgh but understand that at their advanced ages - Keisel is 35, Clark 34 - it might not be in the cards.
And both made strong pitches to stick around.
Though he missed four games this season with a painful foot injury, Keisel finished the season with 40 tackles, four sacks, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. Clark, meanwhile, joined linebacker Lawrence Timmons as the only players on the team with 100 tackles and tied for the team lead with two interceptions.
Neither sounded ready to quit playing football. But neither were veterans such as Hines Ward, James Farrior or Casey Hampton, other veterans the team has either released or not re-signed in recent years who wound up failing to find any interest on the open market.
“I’m going to play. It might not be here. That’s up to the Rooneys and (general manager) Kevin Colbert, but I’m going to play,” said Clark. “When you finish with 100 tackles, it shows you can get around the ball. And they changed a lot about how I had to play this year because we had some injuries. It kind of limited me to doing certain things. But it’s what the team needed.
“I feel good. I’m a 12-year guy. I understand that. But I’m a 12-year guy who didn’t miss a practice. I’ve been blessed to be healthy, and as long as I’m healthy, I want to give it a shot.”
If Keisel leaves, the Steelers will be down to five players who have played in all three of their recent Super Bowl appearances - quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, tight end Heath Miller, safety Troy Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor and linebacker Larry Foote. And Foote suffered a season-ending arm injury in this year’s regular season opener and also could be released in the offseason.
Without Keisel and Clark, the Steelers could have a void in leadership to fill. They were two of the team’s four captains this season, the only defensive players chosen by their teammates to fill that role.
They were a key factor in the team continuing to play hard after the team’s 2-6 start.
“Guys could have packed it up a couple of weeks ago, but we have to give credit to our captains, just leading us,” said third-year defensive end Cameron Heyward. “We’ve been very fortunate to have guys that care about this team, because there are other teams that would have just packed it up.”
Instead of metaphorically packing things in during the season, two of those captains could be packing their stuff for the final time this week.
“Coming out of Washington, they gave me an opportunity to play in a Super Bowl,” said Clark. “Some of my best friends are here in Pittsburgh. There’s people I’ll remember forever. It’s been a blessing and honor to play for an organization like this. I hope to continue playing, but if not, there will be no hard feelings, nothing but great memories.”
The Steelers signed running back Alvester Alexander, wide receivers Justin Brown and Kashif Moore, guards Bryant Browning and Chris Hubbard, safety Ross Ventrone and linebacker Kion Wilson to Reserve/Future contracts. All seven finished the season on the Steelers’ practice squad.