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Steelers O-line loses LT Starks for the season

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.

Starks, 28, a starter on Pittsburgh's Super Bowl-winning teams during the 2005 and 2008 seasons, was placed on the injured reserve list and can't return this season. He will be replaced by Jonathan Scott beginning Sunday against the New England Patriots (6-2).

Scott, a former Buffalo Bills starter who has been backing up Starks and right tackle Flozell Adams, has started three times previously against the Patriots. Scott was recommended to the Steelers by offensive line coach Sean Kugler, who coached in Buffalo last season.

"I'm definitely going to put an emphasis on playing at a high level and keeping the ship moving," Scott said.

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The Steelers' injury report should be a long one this week. Safety Will Allen was one of three Steelers who suffered concussions against the Bengals Monday. **More ...**

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.

Going into this season, Roethlisberger had been sacked 37 times more than any other player since entering the league. By comparison, Tom Brady of the Patriots was sacked 127 fewer times than Roethlisberger from 2004-09, and Peyton Manning of the Colts was sacked 153 fewer times.

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."

Roethlisberger compared the wave of injuries to 2008, when the Steelers won the Super Bowl despite losing guard Kendall Simmons and tackle Marvel Smith to early season injuries. Starks moved from right tackle to left tackle to replace Smith.

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

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