PITTSBURGH — Brett Keisel's locker at Heinz Field was already empty when his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates filed in following a 35-32 loss to New Orleans on Sunday.
There's no telling when, or if, the veteran defensive end will find his No. 99 jersey hanging in it again.
The Steelers placed the 36-year-old on season-ending injured reserve Monday, about 24 hours after Keisel tore his triceps in the third quarter.
Pittsburgh signed well-traveled Clifton Geathers to take Keisel's spot on the 53-man roster, but Keisel's departure leaves an emotional void that will be difficult for his enigmatic team to fill heading into a pressure-packed December.
"He gives leadership," cornerback William Gay said. "He's a guy that you know is going to fight to the end. He gave it everything he had. We want to fight for all individuals, but a guy that represents the Steelers, that's Brett Keisel. We have to keep fighting and we have to keep fighting for him."
Keisel angrily paced the sideline after walking off the field in obvious pain. He waved off longtime trainer John Norwig and spent several minutes by himself before hugging a handful of teammates and disappearing down the tunnel, perhaps for good.
The 13-year veteran had 17 tackles and a sack in 12 games following an abrupt return in August. The Steelers initially opted not to re-sign Keisel when his contract expired after the 2013 season, but reached out when they couldn't find anyone to play opposite Cam Heyward.
Keisel's steadying presence provided some semblance of stability during an uneven year. Pittsburgh fell to 7-5 after losing to the Saints, its third loss this season to a team at least three games under-.500 at the time. He remained a force despite his age and nearly sacked Drew Brees in the first quarter of what could be the final game of his career.
"It almost makes you want to cry when you lose a guy like that because he's a leader and so instrumental to what we do here," safety Mike Mitchell said. "We've got to rally around everyone else who is healthy."
It's a group that now includes Geathers. Pittsburgh is Geathers' sixth stop in five seasons. He had four tackles in six games with Washington earlier this year and now finds himself part of a unit that is struggling to create any kind of consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Pittsburgh only got to Brees once on Sunday and failed to produce a turnover while Brees tossed five touchdown passes. New Orleans led by 19 points in the fourth quarter before a pair of late scores made the result look respectable.
Not exactly the kind of performance the Steelers (7-5) anticipated coming off a bye week with a pivotal road game looming at first-place Cincinnati (8-3-1) on Sunday.
Now they must find a way to press on without one of the most respected and popular players on a roster with only a handful of holdovers from the franchise's most recent Super Bowl victory.
"We're in control of what happens from here on out," Mitchell said. "We've got to all rally together. We've got to get better. It's not so much talking about it. Now we've got to go do it."
On both sides of the ball. While Pittsburgh's defense couldn't contain Brees, the offense kicked field goals when only touchdowns would do. Four drives stalled inside the New Orleans 35.
That hadn't been an issue during a stretch where the Steelers went 4-1 to climb into the thick of the postseason chase.
It reappeared against the NFL's 27th-ranked defense even on a day running back Le'Veon Bell became just the sixth player in league history to go over 150 yards receiving and 75 yards rushing in the same game.
"You've got to score points," Bell said. "We didn't do that in the third and fourth quarter."
Not when it mattered. The Steelers dominated the first 20 minutes, but couldn't finish drives in the end zone. The Saints steadied themselves in the second quarter and reeled off five touchdowns in a span of six possessions.
While the Steelers are tired of explaining away poor performances, they have been resilient. They were waxed in Cleveland in early October and responded with three straight resounding wins. Do it again on Sunday against the Bengals and they're right back in it.
"We can't look around us," linebacker Jason Worilds said. "That's the biggest thing. We have to focus on the task at hand. The task at hand is our next opponent. We do that, we'll be fine."
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