Steelers say back injury could keep Smith out of playoffs

Plagued by a back problem that has limited his playing time and his effectiveness in 2007, starting left offensive tackle Marvel Smith will almost certainly miss the Pittsburgh Steelers' regular-season finale against Baltimore. Club officials are concerned the injury might keep him out of the playoffs as well.

"It is a possibility" coach Mike Tomlin said, referring to the chance the AFC North champion Steelers might go into the postseason without Smith, an eight-year veteran."We'll have to deal with this on a day-to-day basis, and see how he improves, and how he feels. Needless to say, he is uncomfortable at this point."

Smith has been slowed by a disk injury, and it is not yet known if the problem will require offseason surgery.

Also, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that safety Troy Polamalu could miss Sunday's game due to a swollen knee.

"We'll limit him a little bit this week in practice and see where he is as we move closer to game time," Tomlin said, according to the newspaper.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a sprained ankle but Tomlin said, "We expect him to be OK," according to the paper. "We'll see his ability to run on Wednesday."

Regarded as Pittsburgh's best pass blocker, Smith has missed three starts already and did not dress for last Thursday's victory at St. Louis. If he does not play Sunday at Baltimore, fourth-year veteran Max Starks will replace Smith in the lineup. Losing Smith for the playoffs would be a major blow for the Steelers, whose offense has slumped lately, and who probably face a difficult draw in the first round of the AFC bracket as the likely No. 4 seed.

Starks is the former starting right tackle but lost his job to second-year pro Willie Colon in training camp. He has played well at times on the left side, but Smith is a Pro Bowl-caliber player, particularly in terms of protecting Roethlisberger, and a difficult player to replace.

The Steelers' line has struggled for much of the season, and some of the shortcomings can be attributed to the physical travails of Smith. Even when he has been in the lineup, Smith has played hurt. In his most recent appearance, the team's Dec. 16 loss to Jacksonville, in which Roethlisberger was sacked five times, Smith had to leave the game in the fourth quarter because of severe back pain.

Sacked only 23 times in the first nine games of the season, Roethlisberger has gone down 24 times now in the past six outings. Only once in that six-game stretch have the Steelers surrendered fewer than three sacks. In four of the six contests, Pittsburgh allowed four sacks or more.

The 47 sacks are one more than Roethlisberger absorbed in 2006.

Baltimore sacked Roethlisberger 14 times in two meetings in 2006 and had three sacks in the teams' first matchup this season, on Nov. 5 at Heinz Field.

The Steelers' second-round pick in the 2000 draft, Smith has appeared in 106 games, with 103 starts, during his eight seasons with the club.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com.