After injury to Starks, Steelers' Essex in line to start at left tackle

An already suspect Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line was further weakened Tuesday when coach Mike Tomlin announced that starting left tackle Max Starks will miss the rest of the season with a left knee injury.

The loss of Starks, who was hurt in last week's loss to the Ravens, means the Steelers will go into Saturday's wild-card playoff game against Jacksonville with their third different left tackle this season.

It is expected that third-year veteran Trai Essex, who played the final three quarters against Baltimore after Starks left the game, will be the starter. Essex has appeared in only three games this season. For his career, the former Northwestern lineman has appeared in only 24 games, with four starts, all of them in his 2005 rookie season.

Essex, 25, was a surprising third-round selection in the 2005 draft after starting the final 37 games of his college career at left tackle. Few teams had Essex rated as high in that draft as the Steelers did.

Another option for the Steelers would be to move Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca to tackle, as they did for nine games in 2003, but the coaching staff probably doesn't want to disrupt the line that much.

"We're not going to tip our hand," Tomlin said, according to The Associated Press. "Trai is the
next guy up and the level of expectation will not change. Using
common sense, he is the third person to have lined up at that
position, so we've got to do some things schematically to help him."

The team's usual starter at left tackle, Marvel Smith, underwent back surgery last week to address a disk problem that bothered him much of the season. Pittsburgh did not place Smith on injured reserve and the Steelers are hopeful he might be able to play if the Steelers advance to the divisional round.

Starks started four games in place of Smith this year. The four-year veteran was the starting right tackle for two years, but lost his job to second-year pro Willie Colon in training camp. Starks suffered damage to the meniscus cartilage Sunday and will require surgery.

He is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in the spring.

Although he enjoyed a career season, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 47 times in 2007 and often forced to scramble out of trouble. In the regular-season meeting against the Jaguars, a 29-22 loss at Heinz Field on Dec. 16, Roethlisberger was sacked five times.

Tomlin held Roethlisberger, who is battling a sore shoulder and sprained ankle, out of the regular-season finale to give him a rest before the playoffs begin.

In addition to Starks, the Steelers will also be without linebacker and special teams captain Clint Kriewaldt, who will be placed on IR with a neck injury.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.