Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger showed his support for ex-Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel by wearing a jersey with the No. 99 at the Steelers' first full practice of training camp Saturday. He wore ex-Steelers left tackle Max Starks' jersey in the same manner in 2011.
If his aim was to set the wheels in motion of getting Starks re-signed, it worked. He was back with the team by the fifth game of the year.
If Keisel returns, the Steelers would bolster depth at a very young defensive end position that had multiple players rotating through Saturday. If he does not, it appears the most likely move - Cameron Heyward assuming the role of right defensive end - is the plan.
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Heyward took over that spot Saturday and would be the most likely to hold it down in the team's base defense should everything progress on schedule. Heyward's best play in 2013 came when he was playing an interior (3/4i technique) position in sub-packages. Rookie Stephon Tuitt and veteran free agent signing Cam Thomas are possible candidates to take over the vacated left defensive end position, and the team has talented-but-inexperienced players like Nick Williams and Brian Arnfelt who may push for playing time.
The fact he's playing there now doesn't suggest either Keisel's return is imminent or the team is moving on from the veteran who has been with the Steelers since 2002. The team has not issued his No. 99 jersey (except in practice form to Roethlisberger), and his usual locker space is not currently occupied - indications the door is open for his return.
In the meantime, Heyward, the only Steelers defensive end with game experience inside Dick LeBeau's defense, will anchor down that spot, a critical one against the run in the team's base package.
Sub packages are run considerably more frequently, and Heyward's best use is on the inside, meaning, a lack of Keisel will force the Steelers to put an inexperienced player on that right side in subs. Tuitt was thought to have been drafted to help bolster that spot, considering his size and strength.
Rookie defensive linemen play in this defense about as often as the Steelers have losing seasons, so there's strong logic behind leaving the door open for Keisel's return. While it doesn't assure him of a starting spot or any amount of playing time, the Steelers may choose to bring the veteran in for the sake of having flexibility to move Heyward around without putting a younger player on the field before he's ready.