PITTSBURGH -- The Dallas Cowboys' most daunting challenge of the season became more formidable Saturday when the team decided to face the Pittsburgh Steelers' No. 1-ranked defense without Pro Bowl running back Marion Barber.
A high-ranking team source said Barber did not travel to Pittsburgh on the team charter.
The Cowboys could also be without DeMarcus Ware, who had practiced throughout the week with a protective brace on the knee he hyperextended last week, a source told ESPN on Saturday. The status of the NFL's sack leader for the game against the Steelers will not be known with certainty until pregame warmups.
The confidence that prompted Ware to say he was ready to go "full blast'' has been tempered by new concern about how the cold weather in Pittsburgh might affect his ability to keep the damaged knee joint loose during the game.
The Cowboys are concerned about how effective Barber could be while still experiencing pain from a dislocated small toe on his right foot. The team was worried about further damage that would risk him for the remainder of their December schedule, as the team attempts to secure a wild-card playoff berth.
After a week in which he was unable to practice, Barber's streak of 55 consecutive regular-season games played will come to an end.
With the forecast calling for a high of 24 degrees in Pittsburgh with winds and a 50 percent chance of snow, Tony Romo will be making the coldest start of his NFL career without Barber for a game in which the running back normally would have played a prominent role.
Barber is a three-down player who not only is capable of punishing runs but also is a willing blocker with a strong lower body and a veteran's experience in recognizing the zone blitzes the Steelers will unleash against Romo.
Choice has been an effective runner playing in a backup role since Jones' injury. On Sunday, he must demonstrate his ability to locate free rushers and have enough strength to neutralize them against the Steelers' blitzing defense.
Barber is the Cowboys' leading rusher with 870 yards and has scored seven of the team's 10 rushing touchdowns. His absence in the passing game may also prove critical, as his 47 receptions trail only Terrell Owens and Jason Witten among Cowboys.
The Cowboys' equipment and training staffs made several attempts to modify Barber's shoes to create something that offered comfort and stability while protecting the foot against potential further injury.
When that failed, the Cowboys called on Nike, which reconstructed Barber's shoe and inserted a lightweight piece of carbon fiber designed specially to protect the arch and toes. According to a Nike spokesman, it is something the company has done for about 10 other NFL players this season.
To no avail, the shoes were sent to the Cowboys' team hotel in Pittsburgh for Barber to try upon arrival.
Ed Werder covers the NFL for ESPN.