Shawne Merriman delivers a hit to Ben Roethlisberger in a 2005 game in San Diego.
By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ben Roethlisberger will make his 10th start of the season at quarterback for the Steelers today, the ninth time with a separated right shoulder.
His star running back, Willie Parker, will return to the field for only his fifth game, wearing a harness to protect his own injured shoulder. Free safety Ryan Clark will wear a similar harness on his injured shoulder. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who has 9.5 sacks, will try to play after missing last Sunday with a calf injury.
Those are the lucky ones for the Steelers; at least they get to play today when they kick off against the San Diego Chargers at 4:15 p.m. at Heinz Field. Many others cannot.
Tight end Heath Miller will miss his second game in a row with a high ankle sprain. Left tackle Marvel Smith will miss his fifth with back problems. William Gay will make his first pro start because two cornerbacks ahead of him, Deshea Townsend and Bryant McFadden, are out with injuries.
And those are just for starters. In fact, the Steelers have missed 31 games from their 22 starters and that does not include their punter, who would bring it to 40, nor their long-snapper.
It's been standing-room-only in their training room for much of the season, yet somehow they've managed to win six of nine games while missing so many players.
The number of injuries on the Steelers this season represents the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, mainly because it does them no good.
"Injuries are as much a part of the game as blocking and tackling,'' said coach Mike Tomlin, who stated early in his tenure that the sport was a game of attrition. "We don't make any excuses in that regard. The people who play for us are the Steelers and the standard of expectation does not and will not change."
Tough finishesThe Steelers began the season with the toughest strength of schedule based on 2007 records. How that list looks now using 2008 records:Team
Coaches rarely use injuries as excuses for losing or poor performances, even when it gets them fired. That is what happened to Chargers defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, canned by coach Norv Turner Oct. 28 after San Diego went two consecutive games without a sack or a takeaway -- even though his defense led the NFL with 48 takeaways last season and an opponent passer rating of 70.0.
They are last in the league against the pass this season, perhaps due to the loss of sack machine Shawne Merriman to injury after just one game. Cottrell never used that as an excuse, but the Chargers' defense has not been the same without the man who had 39.5 sacks in the previous three seasons.
Still, he's the only significant player San Diego has lost, yet the Chargers have tumbled from a visit to the past AFC championship game to 4-5. Merriman is one of two Chargers on injured reserve, the other a backup tight end.
The Steelers somehow have managed to go 6-3 through all of their injuries, including nine players on injured reserve.
"Injuries will be a distraction if you allow it to be,'' said Steelers veteran backup quarterback Charlie Batch, placed on injured reserve with a broken collarbone during the preseason. "That can happen -- 'Oh, we can't get it done without this person.'
"This team doesn't believe that. We feel we're all in this together and the backups are just as capable as starters.''
The Steelers have shown that to be true through nine games, yet they have lost two of their past three and who knows if they can survive the next seven, especially if they have more injuries. Last season, they were 9-3 but lost four of their final five, including a playoff game, as the absence to injuries of Parker, Clark, defensive end Aaron Smith, Marvel Smith and safety Troy Polamalu seemed to doom them.
"At some point, we will be tested,'' Batch said, "if we haven't already as it relates to two and three people going down at one position.''
Such a test will occur at left cornerback today with Gay starting and either Anthony Madison or newly signed veteran Fernando Bryant playing the nickel. Also, with Marvel Smith out -- they already lost starting right guard Kendall Simmons for the season with an Achilles injury -- no one's complaining anymore that they paid Max Starks that nearly $7 million as a transition player.
"A lot of people were questioning that at the beginning of the season,'' said Starks, who will make his fifth start at left tackle today. "But I also was on field goal block, learning tight end -- it wasn't like I was twiddling my thumbs the entire time.
"But now this is a perfect example where you need guys to step in and play and you have that, with no drop-off. You have guys who are self-less who think of the team before they think of themselves."
They all remember when Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton was lost for nearly half the season and untested backup Chris Hoke replaced him, the defense continued to dominate and the Steelers finished 15-1.
"It's not, 'Can you win without Casey Hampton?'" said Hines Ward. "It's more, 'Can you win with Chris Hoke?'
"We've done that. That's the approach we take. If you ask, hell yeah, we can win. We just have to weather the storm. The season's not over, you can't throw in the towel. Guys who are getting the opportunity are stepping up to the plate and performing.''