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Steelers' worrisome injury list for playoffs: long, and growing

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin keeps erasing names on that depth chart on his office wall. Many teams list players three deep at most positions, but the Steelers can't begin to do that.

Two-deep? Can't do that, either.

At left tackle, there's Trai Essex, then no one. At fullback, there's Carey Davis, then no one. At right tackle, there's Willie Colon, then no one.

And if these Steelers lose to Jacksonville at home Saturday night in the AFC playoffs? Tomlin's thinking is they will have no one to blame but themselves.

The Steelers may be without injured running back Willie Parker, defensive end Aaron Smith, offensive tackles Marvel Smith and Max Starks and safety Ryan Clark, but Tomlin said there is no time during a short work week to fret about such problems.

"Whoever hoists that Lombardi Trophy in a month or so will have had injury issues and will have found ways to overcome it," Tomlin said Tuesday. "We don't dwell on that. It's as much a part of the game as blocking and tackling. The healthy guys play and the standard of expectation doesn't change."

Still, the Steelers' already-bad injury situation got even worse when Starks was lost for the postseason with a meniscus injury in his knee that occurred during a 27-21 loss Sunday in Baltimore. Starks, the right tackle when Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl two years ago, moved to left tackle when Marvel Smith developed a back problem several weeks ago.

For now, former third-stringer Essex is listed as the starter at left tackle. Another option is to shift Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca to left tackle and play Chris Kemoeatu, the only healthy backup lineman, at left guard.

"We're not going to tip our hand," Tomlin said. "Trai is the next guy up and the level of expectation will not change. Using common sense, he is the third person to have lined up at that position, so we've got to do some things schematically to help him."

Shifting Faneca to tackle is a strong possibility given the Steelers' season-long problems in protecting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who was sacked 47 times in 15 games. The club record is 51 sacks during Cliff Stoudt's one and only season as the starting quarterback in 1983.

The Steelers will add two players, but Tomlin said neither player who signs can be expected to play a major on-field role Saturday.

Also out is linebacker Clint Kriewaldt (neck), the special teams captain who was placed on the injured reserve list Tuesday.

Even the Steelers' so-called healthy players aren't truly so.

Strong safety Troy Polamalu made the Pro Bowl for the fourth consecutive season but, bothered by knee and shoulder injuries, has only infrequently been the player he was in the past. Wide receiver Hines Ward (knee), cornerbacks Deshea Townsend (foot) and Bryant McFadden (ankle), kick returner Allen Rossum (hamstring) and Roethlisberger (sprained ankle) also aren't 100 percent healthy.

The injuries are coming at key positions, too. Parker was leading the NFL with 1,316 yards rushing when he broke his right leg. Marvel Smith was Roethlisberger's blind-side protector. Aaron Smith is one of the NFL's best run defenders, and the Steelers have been roughed up for 494 yards rushing in three games without him.

The Steelers may not have been so beaten up for a playoff game since 1976. Then, playing without injured 1,000-yard rushers Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, their 10-game winning streak ended with a 24-7 loss to Oakland in the AFC championship game.

Tomlin won't speculate what effect the injuries have had on his team's late-season slide. The Steelers (10-6) have dropped three of four and four of seven and may be going into the playoffs with less momentum than any of the 12 qualifiers.

"That's a concern," Tomlin said when asked about the Steelers' confidence. "A lot of things are of concern. What lies ahead is an enormous playoff game versus a great football team at our place. ... If there is any hesitation, they better quickly get over it because the ball is going to be kicked off here shortly."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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