Steelers add to fleet

<b> PITTSBURGH -</b> They already had The Bus in their garage. Now the Steelers have a Duce Coup.<br><br> Duce Staley signed a 5-year, $14 million contract with the Steelers last night. The deal includes a $4 million signing bonus.<br><br> The move is expected to dramatically improve a Steelers' rushing game that ranked 31st in the NFL last season, the worst ranking of the franchise's modern era.

The Steelers had worked at a feverish pitch the last two days to sign Staley, a 5 feet 11, 220-pound veteran of seven NFL seasons.

A third-round draft pick out of South Carolina in 1997, Staley has rushed for 4,807 yards on 1,200 carries (4.0 average) throughout his seven seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. He's also caught 275 passes for 2,498 yards.

Staley chose the Steelers over the Detroit Lions because of the money, an opportunity to team with Jerome "Bus" Bettis and "because he rooted for Pittsburgh as a kid," said Leigh Steinberg, one of the agents on Staley's negotiating team.

Staley, 29, is coming off his least productive season since 2000, when he missed all but five games with a Lis Franc foot sprain.

Staley held out of training camp last season in an attempt to renegotiate the final year of his contract. Upon his return, he found himself in a three-man rotation at halfback with Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter and gained only 463 yards on 96 carries. Staley also caught 36 passes last season.

Staley did, however, finish the 2003 season with career highs in rushing average (4.8) and receiving average (10.6). He also rushed for 124 yards on 18 carries (6.9 avg.) in two Eagles playoff games.

Nicknamed "Buddy Lee" by his Eagles teammates because of his ruggedness, Staley has three 1,000-yard seasons to his credit. His most recent was 2002, when he gained 1,029 yards. Staley's best season was 1999, when he rushed for 1,273 yards.

The signing of Staley doesn't necessarily mean he'll start for the Steelers. Coach Bill Cowher promised Bettis a chance to compete for the starting job when Bettis agreed to renegotiate his contract last month. The move in all likelihood means an end in Pittsburgh for Amos Zereoue, who's due to make $2.2 million in salary this season.

Elsewhere on the free-agency front, the Steelers remain in contention to sign cornerback Artrell Hawkins. The Johnstown native said he "would love to play (in Pittsburgh)" during his visit with the Steelers on Monday. He cited his desire to play in front of his family and friends and for defensive coaches Dick LeBeau, Ray Horton and Darren Perry, all of whom coached Hawkins during his six seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Before leaving Pittsburgh to visit the Carolina Panthers, Hawkins said, "I do have to look out and make sure I have options, but Pittsburgh is high on my priority list." Hawkins had not signed with the Panthers as of last night.

The Steelers hosted defensive tackle Travis Kirschke on Tuesday. They offered him a minimum-wage contract but Kirschke went home "to talk it over with my wife" in Highland Ranch, Colorado. He'll visit the Denver Broncos on Wednesday.

Kirschke started 15 games for the San Francisco 49ers last season and led the team's linemen in tackles with a career-high 43. He also had 1.5 sacks.

Kirschke, 29, started his pro career with the Detroit Lions in 1997. He played six seasons in Detroit after landing with the team as an undrafted rookie out of UCLA.

In seven seasons, Kirschke has started 25 games and made 114 tackles with 4 sacks.

The Steelers are interested in defensive linemen because back-up nose tackle Kendrick Clancy is a free agent and back-up right defensive end Rodney Bailey has signed a one-year offer sheet with the New England Patriots for $1.3 million.

The Steelers have two more days to match the offer for Bailey, a restricted free agent. If the Steelers pass on Bailey, on Friday they'll be awarded the Patriots' sixth-round pick in the upcoming draft.

Bailey, 24, played in eight games last season and made 9 tackles with 2 sacks. In his three-year career, Bailey has 45 tackles and 9.5 sacks.

Former Steelers cornerback Dewayne Washington signed yesterday with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Washington was the Steelers' starter on the right side from 1998 until midway through last season when he was benched for Deshea Townsend. Washington was released by the Steelers on Feb. 27.

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