The Steelers have perhaps six or seven Pro Bowl candidates and they may play without five of them in a crucial game Monday night in San Francisco.
The five and their problems: James Harrison (suspension), LaMarr Woodley (hamstring), Ben Roethlisberger (high ankle sprain), Maurkice Pouncey (high ankle sprain) and Troy Polamalu (hamstring).
It's not likely all will miss because Pouncey feels confident he will play and coach Mike Tomlin painted a rosier picture of Woodley, who has missed four starts and three-quarters of a game over the past five because of his lingering injury.
The Steelers are trying to get one game ahead of Baltimore over the final three in order to win the AFC North Division and perhaps get a bye through the first week of the playoffs.
"The guys that will be available to us will be the guys that we work with," Tomlin said, restating a long-standing theme of his. "If we lose guys due to suspension or injury, the standard is still the standard. We won't blink in that regard. We've been very consistent in that area."
Like the Steelers, the 49ers are 10-3 and also fighting for a playoff bye. They have clinched the NFC West Division title but are locked in a tie with New Orleans for the No. 2 conference seed in the playoffs.
"I think our guys enjoy the challenges that come with that, meeting that standard," Tomlin said. "Boy, if they enjoy challenges, they have what they are looking for this week."
Tomlin listed Roethlisberger, Pouncey and Polamalu as questionable for the game. Woodley missed three games, then started against Cincinnati Dec. 4, but had to leave in the first quarter because he could not push off of his injured leg. He missed Thursday's game against Cincinnati.
"Under the circumstances with James Harrison, it would benefit us to have LaMarr Woodley," Tomlin said.
Jason Worilds replaced Woodley and would move to right outside linebacker for Harrison Monday night. If for some reason Woodley cannot go or has to leave the game again, Worilds would play on the left side, starting inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons would play in Harrison's spot and Larry Foote would start for Timmons inside.
Charlie Batch, who has been No. 2 all season, would likely start for Roethlisberger. Dennis Dixon, who has not played all season, would dress even if Roethlisberger can play. It's possible that if Roethlisberger does not play, Dixon could still get into the mix at quarterback if Batch starts.
"If we are going into this game with Ben less than 100 percent, three quarterbacks are a potential option," Tomlin said. "So we will get all of our quarterbacks ready so we are ready regardless of the circumstance Monday night."
Tomlin said if Roethlisberger is healthy enough, he will play. He has been wearing a boot on his injured left foot, which is standard procedure for an ankle injury, and not likely to practice today. With the extra day of practice through Saturday, Roethlisberger could go until perhaps Friday before he sees the field.
"If he is going to play, he is going to practice in some form or fashion," Tomlin said. "I think that's appropriate. That is just my approach to this. As we get closer to the weekend, as we deal with situational football -- red zones, short yardage, goal line, third down, and so on -- I believe that everyone who is going to be a participant needs physical reps at those. ... Right now we are just trying to get him as healthy as we can on a day-to-day basis."
First, Chris Kemoeatu played himself out of the starting job at left guard he had held for four seasons, and now he may have dropped further on the depth chart after Thursday's performance against the Cleveland Browns.
Kemoeatu entered that game late in the second quarter when Pouncey left and guard Doug Legursky shifted to center. In the second half, Kemoeatu was flagged three times, twice for holding and once for a hands-to-the-face penalty.
Tomlin was asked if there was anything he could do about Kemoeatu's propensity for committing penalties.
"He is playing illegally, so he is getting penalized. He either has to change his technique, or improve his technique, or he won't get the opportunity to."
It's possible that Trai Essex could start at left guard if Pouncey does not play Monday.
"That's to be determined," Tomlin said. "Those are some of the things that we are hashing through, given that the game is Monday, six days away."
The resumes of those players who will be missing or could be missing from the Monday night game in San Francisco:
James Harrison : AP NFL defensive player of the year awards (1) ... Pro Bowl appearances (4). ... Times All-Pro (2). ... 45 sacks since beginning of 2008.
Troy Polamalu : AP NFL defensive player of the year awards (1). ... Pro Bowl appearances (6). ... Times All-Pro (4).
Ben Roethlisberger : AFC offensive rookie of the year awards (1). ... Pro Bowl appearances (1).
Maurkice Pouncey : Pro Bowl appearances (1).
LaMarr Woodley : Pro Bowl appearances (1). ... 44 sacks since beginning of 2008.
Note: All-Pro designation as either first or second team .
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published December 14, 2011 5:00 AM