Steelers Keisel prepared to carry a team as Heyward prepared to carry a torch

Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

Fans may be witnessing a changing of the guard at defensive end in 2013 as a beloved aging veteran showed up ready for one last ride, while his young understudy set out to prove he is ready to take the wheel.

Arriving to training camp in a tractor says, 'I'm ready to work'. Arriving to training camp in a dump truck says, 'I'm ready to carry the load'.

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel has caught the attention of training camp on-lookers the past two seasons, arriving at St. Vincent College of Latrobe, Pa in heavy equipment for training camp. While some see his modes of transportation as pure grandstanding, others see them as much more sincere statements.

Keisel, who at the tender young age of 34 is now the oldest member of notoriously old defense, has been a vocal veteran leader throughout the off-season, often speaking of his efforts toward being more than just a teammate to his young defensive co-workers. He has accepted his roles of mentor and teacher, not just to benefit the team for the present year, but also to pass on the legacy which he has taken pride in preserving for the past 12 seasons for the next generation.

As Trib Total Media's Mark Kaboly pointed out in his Friday column, this could be Keisel's final ride as an NFL player in Pittsburgh. Keisel acknowledged his situation in anticipation of the challenges which lie ahead.

"I want to just enjoy this year. I don't know what's going to happen with everything. I am going to go out and give it my all and have fun and see what happens. If it is the end, then I want to go out on top. I want to go out on top if it is not the end."

"Twelve seasons in the NFL is pretty good, especially when you can do it with a great organization like the Pittsburgh Steelers. As long as my coaches and teammates feel like I can do it and I feel like I can do it, let's do it."

Keisel understands this is the last year on his current contract, and the miniscule chance of seeing another. He also realizes his years of service guarantee him nothing, as every player must earn the right to don the black and gold. Keisel's choice of a dump truck symbolizes his intention to carry his defense should he be deemed worthy to hold down his defensive end position one more time.

Meanwhile, Keisel's understudy Cameron Heyward has instead shed some weight, attempting to make a statement of his own.

"I thought I could slim down some more and get better shape."

According to Kaboly, Heyward has slimmed down to 298 pounds. Heyward has learned from Keisel's example, realizing not only must he have strength and leverage to deal with offensive linemen while defending the rush; but he must also maintain quickness and athleticism to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Whether or not the weight loss and conditioning will pay off in the end remains to be seen, but Heyward will need to make a drastic improvement in his third season if he wants the Steelers to consider offering him a new contract when his current rookie deal expires. Trimming the fat makes for a logical first step.

The Steelers used 1st round draft picks to secure the services of both ends Heyward and Ziggy Hood, quite contrary to the latter round selections which nabbed living legends in Aaron Smith and Keisel, who entered the NFL as a seventh round selection. Hood continues to develop, but comments regarding his technical issues continue to fuel speculation the team may allow him to walk when he becomes an unrestricted free agent following the season. Heyward has yet to really see any significant time, usually only spelling Keisel.

The Steelers will be hoping Heyward can exhibit mental preparation to match his physical conditioning as they look toward a future without Keisel; but they will also be expecting Keisel to make good on his statement about leading this team toward the post-season one last time.

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