By Tom James
INDIANAPOLIS — It appears Pittsburgh Steelers running back Willie Parker (shoulder), offensive tackle Marvel Smith (back), tight end Heath Miller (ankle) and cornerback Bryant McFadden (forearm) will miss Sunday’s game with the Indianapolis Colts.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder, thumb), though, will probably be a game-time decision.
Parker, who had already missed four games with a knee injury earlier in the season, was hurt in Monday night’s 23-6 win over the Washington Redskins and is listed as doubtful. He is Pittsburgh’s leading rusher with 333 yards on 87 carries and has scored four touchdowns.
There shouldn’t be much of a drop-off in talent, although the running styles between Parker and backup Mewelde Moore are a bit different. Moore has started three times this year and comes into the Indianapolis game as the Steelers’ second-leading rusher with 320 yards on 69 carries and has three TDs.
“He’s a good back for them. But obviously when you lose one of your top players, other guys have to step up,” Colts coach Tony Dungy said Friday. “[Moore] picks his way, great vision, cutback stuff. Not the burst outside that Parker has. But he’s a good back. He’s been productive for them in the last month.”
Roethlisberger sat out practice Wednesday and Thursday, but went through a full workout Friday. He underwent a magnetic resonance imaging test Tuesday on his right shoulder. The former Miami of Ohio signal-caller initially hurt in the Steelers’ season-opening win over Houston and was re-injured Monday night against Washington.
“I played through it before and we’ll do it again,” Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, brushing off suggestions that he will sit out against the Colts game in order to rest the shoulder.
“You all want me to take a week off, don’t you? It seems like everyone’s saying that to me. We took a week off for the bye week and it still didn’t get to 100 percent, so I don’t think it would help. It’s that time of year. We’re halfway. It’s the stretch for me and it’s time to start playing better for me.”
He also has a brace on his left thumb because of a torn ligament suffered in the team’s Oct. 26 loss to the New York Giants.
“The doctor told me I’ll probably wear this brace for eight weeks, practically ‘til the end of the season. It feels better, but you have to keep it on to keep your thumb from bending all the way back,” he said.
Roethlisberger — who is listed as probable for the Colts game — also had a meeting with Steelers coach Mike Tomlin Wednesday, presumably to discuss what he considers some uneven play of late. Both have acknowledged that the Pittsburgh quarterback will need to play with some degree of pain in the Steelers’ final eight games as well as the postseason should they get that far.
“You know what? I have played sub-par football to date,” he said. “It’s time for that to change and it will change. I think as my performance changes, I think you’ll see some changes in the offense because we’ll be clicking more, we’ll be making more completions and things will happen nice.”
Tomlin has said that he will wait before naming a starter for the Colts game and that he will consult with the Pittsburgh medical staff before making a decision on whether to start Byron Leftwich or Roethlisberger.
“Really this week’s decision at this point is no different than the decisions we’ve made in the last three, four, five weeks in regard to his health,” Tomlin said. “Is he capable of being Ben? If he is, then he’ll play. If not, we’ll go with Byron.”
Dungy says it doesn’t matter who the Steelers end up going with at quarterback. How the offense is run won’t change much either way.
“You have to play their system. They’re not going to change what they do whether Leftwich is in there, whether Moore is in there [at running back]. [Tight end] Heath Miller may or may not play. They are kind of like we are in that side of things. They just do what they’re supposed to do. The next guy steps up and does his job. They’ve done it with a lot of different guys in the lineup this year.”
Miller, McFadden and Smith have yet to practice this week. Neither has linebacker LaMarr Woodley (calf) and running back Najeh Davenport (hamstring), who are both listed as questionable.
Smith, who has missed the last three games, will be replaced by Max Starks at left offensive tackle and will line up against Indianapolis defensive end Dwight Freeney.
“He’s a heck of a player. He’s not prototypical at the defensive-end position. He’s an anomaly, just like [Steelers outside linebacker] James Harrison. He plays bigger than he really is,” Starks said of the Colts’ all-time sack leader.
Leftwich, who remembers Freeney and defensive end Robert Mathis from his time with the Jacksonville Jaguars, agrees.
“I was asked who I thought the best defensive player in this league was and I always said Dwight Freeney because of the havoc he causes every play,” he said. “You have to be able to block Dwight and them. That’s the whole key. Those guys are not big guys, but they are fast guys.”
Also, the Steelers have replaced punter Mitch Berger with former Pittsburgh punter Paul Ernster. Berger struggled against the Redskins on Monday night. Ernster had been with the team during the preseason, but was cut at the end of training camp.
• Injury list — Offensive tackle Ryan Diem (ankle) returned to practice Friday and is expected to start against the Steelers on Sunday. Also getting back on the field were tight end Tom Santi (shoulder) and safety Bob Sanders (rest).
Diem and Santi are listed as probable. Defensive tackle Daniel Muir (hamstring), Hayden (hamstring) and wide receiver Roy Hall (knee) did not practice Friday and are listed as doubtful. Quarterback Jim Sorgi (right hand) saw limited work Friday but should be available to play if needed Sunday.