Bouchette on the Steelers: Good left tackles are hard to come by (not to mention expensive)

So Marvel Smith's latest surgery might open the door for him to remain.

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Don't write off Marvel Smith just yet. His second "minor" back procedure may have been a blessing in disguise, at least for his remaining with the Steelers beyond this season.

Smith had a second diskectomy several weeks ago to remove another small piece of herniated disk lodged on a nerve in his lower back. It remained a well-kept secret publicly until now. He had a similar surgery last season and improved immensely until another piece found its way onto a nerve early this season.

The Steelers never revealed the nature of his problem and held out hope that Smith could return in time to play. But they finally put him on injured reserve Tuesday and signed tackle Jason Capizzi because of the limits they will have on roster moves once the playoffs begin.

Smith was set to earn a big payday in free agency had his back not caused him to miss 10 games. Now, he's likely to be more open to a shorter-term contract with the Steelers before he would become an unrestricted free agent Feb. 27. The contract length of two or three years would contain a signing bonus but also lean more heavily on incentives, if he accepts one from them.

Smith is a good left tackle when healthy, and there's no reason to believe that this back surgery was anything but helpful. Good left tackles are hard to find. The Steelers will draft late in the first round, and immediate starting left tackles rarely are found there.

Max Starks also remains a possibility, and he, too, can become an unrestricted free agent Feb. 27. But if they can sign Starks and Smith to reasonable contracts, they could move Willie Colon to guard next season, put Starks back at right tackle and perhaps start repairing their line.

Good left tackles don't come cheaply. It would cost the Steelers much more to try to sign impending free-agent left tackles such as Khalif Barnes, Jordan Gross or Tra Thomas than they should be able to pay their own man, Smith, rated second among all possible unrestricted free-agent tackles except Gross by Starks ranks 10th, although he's improved his lot over the past 10 weeks while playing for Smith.

This season's not over yet, but about 2009 ...

Here's some good news for the '09 Steelers: Their schedule won't be the toughest next season, although perhaps that's not as important as it seemed at the start of 2008.

The Steelers had the toughest schedule this season, based on opponent records from 2007. Next season, they and the rest of the AFC North will play the AFC West, the weakest division in the conference. San Diego will win that division with an 8-8 record if it beats Denver today. Others in that division are Kansas City (2-13) and Oakland (4-11).

But no team drags down their opponents' winning percentage like the Detroit Lions, who can become the NFL's first 0-16 team today. Possible Thanksgiving Day Alert: The Steelers play at the Lions next season.

They play four playoff teams from this season, five if Baltimore makes it. This season, they had eight playoff teams from '07 on their schedule, not including the Cleveland Browns, who went 10-6.

The Browns, though, are yet another example of why the degree of difficulty of schedule cannot be determined based on the previous season's results. So, too, is Baltimore, which was 5-11 last season, and Jacksonville, which is 5-10 after going 11-5 and making it to the second round of the playoffs last season.

The Steelers' 2009 opponents' are known except for one team -- they will visit whoever wins the AFC East, which means yet another game at New England is possible.

The rest of their schedule:

Home -- AFC North, Oakland, San Diego, Green Bay, Minnesota, Tennessee. Away -- AFC North, Denver, Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, AFC East champ.

The two sides of a meaningless game

The debate to play 'em or sit 'em heated up the past week because of Mike Tomlin's decision to treat the game today against the Cleveland Browns as if it meant something.

Both sides make good points. I'm generally on the side of resting key players. I would not, for example, play Ben Roethlisberger, Willie Parker, James Harrison, Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, Brett Keisel or Heath Miller. I would rest them mainly to allow whatever ails them to heal another two weeks, and also because I don't think any of those players would be affected negatively by not playing today.

I also can understand what Tomlin is doing. The last thing he wants is to finish with two losses. Winning and losing tend to feed off each other. It has nothing to do with momentum entering the playoffs because there is no momentum at the beginning of a season and the Steelers played one of their best games in the opener -- after most starters played little in the final preseason game.

Last season, some starters were rested in Baltimore, and the Steelers lost what was described as a meaningless game. Then, they then lost to Jacksonville in their playoff game, and no one let them forget that they lost four of their final five games, and we did not mention one of them was "meaningless.''

So the Steelers will try to avoid losing two games in a row at the end of the season, and, if anyone gets hurt in the process, that's football.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at .


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