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STEELERS Bettis, Bruener will be watching



Published: Fri, April 25, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Depending on Pittsburgh's draft picks, they may be expendable.

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Jerome Bettis and Mark Bruener may learn as early as Saturday if they have a future with the Pittsburgh Steelers. They won't need a phone call from a coach, either -- the NFL draft could tell them.

Bettis is the Steelers' most productive running back not named Franco Harris; Bruener is one of the NFL's best-blocking tight ends. But injuries, age and the Steelers' shifting emphasis from run to pass could make both players expendable, perhaps before training camp begins.

Coach Bill Cowher said Monday the Steelers haven't decided if either player still fits into their plans and the draft could be the determining factor.

Reasons for decline

Bettis' run of six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons ended when a knee injury limited him to 666 yards last season. He didn't play an important role in the playoffs for a second straight season.

Bruener has missed extensive late-season playing time and the playoffs the last two seasons with knee and shoulder injuries.

"Both those players' situations will certainly be affected by what takes place this weekend," Cowher said. "Just don't ask me Sunday ... because it's important we sit down and look at it as an organization and look at it with the players -- what their roles may be and where they would fit in with our team."

Bruener signed a four-year contract extension only last year, but seemingly became expendable when the Steelers signed Jay Riemersma. The former Buffalo Bills starter gives the Steelers a down-the-middle receiving threat previously missing from their offense.

The signing was seen as another indicator the Steelers prefer to pass first and run second. Bruener is an excellent blocker, but hasn't caught more than 19 passes in the last seven seasons, and he has been hurt three of the last four seasons.

Availability problem

After going into the playoffs with a backup at tight end the last two seasons, the Steelers now have four veterans under contract: Bruener, Riemersma, Jerame Tuman and Matt Cushing.

"The last two playoffs, we haven't had our starting tight end and I wasn't going to let that happen anymore. We're going to have a good tight end going into the playoffs," Cowher said.

Bettis, whose weight apparently became an issue with Cowher last season, is working out in Los Angeles with track coach Bob Kersee. He is expected to attend the Steelers' off-season coaching session that begins May 19.




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