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Savran: Steelers appear set to pass on Bruener

Saturday, March 22, 2003

I don't know if Mark Bruener owns a home here, his fall home since 1995. But based on recent events, it might not be a bad idea for him to consider renting. How else to interpret the Steelers' signing of tight end Jay Riemersma?

You don't spend $4 million -- a quarter of that up front as a signing bonus -- on a backup.

And they wouldn't have re-signed backup Jerame Tuman in advance of recruiting Riemersma if they still considered Bruener to be the starter. They don't use the tight end significantly enough to have that much money tied up in the position.

It appears they want to upgrade the significance of the tight end, which makes it probable, if not obvious, that Bruener and his salary might soon be lopped from the roster and payroll.

It seems apparent the coaching staff plans to elevate the tight end position to a much higher pass-catching profile.

Both Riemersma and Tuman tip the scale to the receiver side vs. the third offensive tackle the Steelers' tight ends had become. This isn't to suggest Riemersma is a bad blocker. He's not in Bruener's league, but few are. He's capable, but his strength is catching the ball and running with it, not bulldozing a path for others.

Tuman's blocking is more than a question mark -- it's a liability. Granted, the absence of Jerome Bettis in the latter portions of the past two seasons is the primary reason the Steelers' running game suffered for those prolonged stretches. But having Tuman instead of Bruener was part of the problem as well.

In any event, Mike Mularkey clearly wants the tight end to occupy a more prominent role in the Steelers' passing game. Equally clear is the message that they don't believe Bruener can function in that role, at least not as well as the other two.

For years, people have wondered why he didn't catch more passes. For years, people pointed to the Steelers' meat-grinder offense as the main reason.

Bruener has good hands and works well in limited, congested space near the goal line. Still, from 20 to 20, he was seldom a pass-catching threat.

Instead of blaming the style of offense, could it be that he just wasn't getting open?

And that the fourth best of a talented group of wide receivers was a better bet to do so?

And that not re-signing that receiver, Terence Mathis, indicates they would rather use a good pass-catching tight end?

It's now a point rendered moot, because it doesn't appear Bruener will be given the chance to operate in what looks to be a redefinition of the position.

But the new job description camouflages a major issue bubbling below the surface: Does this represent a reduced commitment to the running game, the rock and salvation of the Steelers' offense under Bill Cowher?

If you have proactively put yourself in a position to release Bruener, and his primary strength is blocking, what does that say about your allegiance to the ground game?

Especially at a time when your situation at both tackles is unsettled, at best. Especially at a time when your fullback, defined as a guard with a low number, is floating out there in free agency never-never land.

It's hard to imagine any Cowher-coached team abandoning the run, but doesn't all the evidence suggest that the running game will now be the tail, wagged by the passing dog?

This is the most compelling issue brought about by Riemersma's signing. The Steelers appear willing to trade the gap between him and Bruener as a bulldozer for the gap between him and Bruener as a pass catcher.

The emphasis, like the times, they are a-changin'.

And there's one more very important addendum. What does this mean for Bettis? While they certainly will need to run the ball, wouldn't Amos Zereoue be enough in this post smash-mouth world?

Wouldn't it be better to use him in a Marshall Faulk/Charlie Garner role? What would that leave for Jerome? To come in on third-and-short? To grind out the clock to protect leads in the fourth quarter? Both are important functions, but at his salary?

Some think Jerome is done. I emphatically do not.

Some think Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala would be an adequate replacement. I do not.

But if this is all you want from your backup running back in this apparently forthcoming era of Air Tommy, then maybe it is better to save on the salaries of Bruener and Bettis.

The winds of change are blowing. Strongly enough, perhaps, to knock over two cornerstones of the Steelers' offense as we've known it. Maybe even the offense itself.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 6 p.m weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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