PITTSBURGH -- This isn't the news that a suddenly more secure Ben Roethlisberger wanted to hear.
Left tackle Max Starks needs surgery to repair a disc injury in his neck and will miss the rest of the season, leaving the Pittsburgh Steelers without both of their starting offensive tackles. Right tackle Willie Colon, unsigned past this season, was lost for the season when he ruptured his right Achilles' tendon in June.
"It's a huge blow, to have him (Starks) out for the rest of the year is devastating," right guard Trai Essex said Wednesday. "At the same time, this is life in the NFL. Injuries happen and you're only as good as your backups."
The Steelers (6-2) are playing many of those backups. Three linemen were injured in the first half alone during the 27-21 victory at Cincinnati on Monday night, a situation that left the personnel so muddled for a time that backup tight end Matt Spaeth was nearly drafted to play tackle. Doug Legursky played both guard and center.
"I was trying to figure out who was at center and who was at guard, guys were just moving around," Roethlisberger said.
"I'm definitely going to put an emphasis on playing at a high level and keeping the ship moving," Scott said.
Starks has started three seasons at left tackle after starting two seasons at right tackle.
While Scott is experienced, Starks' injury is a setback to an offensive line that, even without Colon, has done a better job of protecting its franchise quarterback. Roethlisberger, sacked an NFL-high 50 times last season and 249 times since his rookie season in 2004, has been dropped only seven times during his first four games.
Just when Roethlisberger was beginning to stay on his feet more, he must adjust to a different left tackle.
"Max has been my blind side for a while and you never like to lose a guy like that you have confidence in," Roethlisberger said. "But I have confidence that J. Scott or whoever else it will be will do just fine protecting my back. I have confidence these guys will keep me upright."
Without Starks and Colon, the Steelers' offensive line depth is greatly depleted; they have drafted no offensive tackles earlier than the fourth round since selecting Essex in 2005. Tony Hills, a former Texas tackle taken on the fourth round in 2008, has played little and often is deactivated on game day.
Rookie tackle Chris Scott was activated from the physically unable to perform list. He broke a foot while working out during the summer and missed training camp.
"I hope we can stabilize things and nobody else gets hurt," Essex said. "It's like, man, we're really going through a lot on the offensive line. ... It's been tough, but a lot of credit goes to coach Kugler. He came in and got us prepared right away, gave all the guys reps at different positions. People were prepared to play a lot of different positions."
The Steelers already were without one of its top defensive linemen, Aaron Smith, who tore his left triceps tendon on Oct. 24 at Miami and could miss the rest of the season.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press