PITTSBURGH – Marvel Smith returned to the locker room less a cast on his left foot but a little wobbly nonetheless. Anyone with two sprained ankles would be.
Has he returned to rescue the slumping Pittsburgh Steelers?
"It's up to coach," he said.
It was the easy way out. It's really up to the player, isn't it?
"If it is, I'll tell him I'm ready now, so it isn't up to me," Smith said. "I might not be 100 percent, but I'll never say I can't go play, so it's up to coach."
Smith understands his value to the Steelers. Over the last three seasons, the left tackle has missed large chunks of 14 games. The Steelers are 3-11 in those games. And this week, in a must-win game, the Steelers are facing another top-flight tandem of defensive ends.
Last week, Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye of the Chicago Bears failed to sack Brett Favre, but in the two previous Bears games, against NFC contenders Carolina and Tampa Bay, the two ends combined for nine sacks.
Brown, who'll rush over Smith's vacated left tackle position, has drawn 14 holding penalties and forced nine false starts this season. Who'll block him?
* Not Smith. The Pro Bowler hopes to return the following week at Minnesota.
"It's hard rehabbing both ankles at the same time," Smith said. "But they're both getting better every day."
"You tell me to go out there and I'm going to go out there," Faneca said. But no one has told him to go out there.
* Not Max Starks. He might know Brown from their days together at the University of Florida, but Starks of course is the Steelers' right tackle, and he's struggled himself as a second-year player starting his first season. Starks was upgraded to probable yesterday with a shoulder injury and he guaranteed reporters that he'll play Sunday.
"Working out in space with Ogunleye gives him that inside-outside option to create a lot of pressure," Starks said of the Bears' sacks leader with nine. "He usually forces the quarterback to roll out to the opposite side where the other defensive end is sitting upfield."
That would be Brown, and again the question: Who will block him?
For the fourth consecutive week, rookie Trai Essex will replace Smith. Of course, his presence and the three-game losing streak are a commonality. Essex might turn into a dandy player some day, but today he is struggling.
So what about the big guy way back there on the bench? Barrett Brooks is, after all, an 11-year veteran. He might know enough tricks to keep Brown off of Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback with the splint on his injured right thumb. Might Brooks be the better option against a stud pass-rusher in a game the Steelers must win?
"I'm a competitive guy. I wouldn't be around here if I didn't want to play," Brooks said. "I still love the game. It's not like I have to play; I made my money, just like everybody else, but I love the game of football. I love to play. I don't want to practice every day and then not play. I really do want to play."
Brooks was active last Sunday and thought he might get the call, but it never came. He watched Essex struggle without rancor.
"Everybody needs to know their roles," Brooks said. "I'm here to win; you know what I'm saying? Whatever it takes to win, I'm going to do. If it takes me getting the rookie ready, than I'm getting the rookie ready. If it takes me playing, I'm going to play. Whatever role they define to me, that's the role I'm going to play."
Brooks played one snap last week. He was the third tight end at the goal line and helped seal the corner on Jerome Bettis's easy touchdown run.
"When I go in, I perform and perform at a high level," Brooks said. "The offense never drops when I go in there. They can run whatever they want to run when I'm in there."
In two years with the team, Brooks hasn't come close to meaningful playing time. But he's in the bullpen warming up.