The Tennessee Oilers' offensive line took a big hit Wednesday with the news that Brad Hopkins, who has started the past 70 games at left tackle, will miss three to four weeks with a strained groin.
It was originally though he would miss two games, but coach Jeff Fisher announced after practice Wednesday that the injury was worse.
"We don't know, but we're guessing right now. It's fair to say he'll miss a month," Fisher said. "He's improving, but it's very significant. We just have to see how quickly he responds to treatment."
The injury couldn't come at a worse time for the Oilers (5-4), who have seen their rushing game improve from worst in the NFL after the first four games to seventh with five consecutive 100-yard games by Eddie George.
Hopkins will be replaced at left tackle by second-year player Scott Sanderson, who will be making his first start Sunday in a key AFC Central Division game against the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3).
But Fisher said he won't change his game plan based on Hopkins' injury.
"Scott's here for this purpose. He's now getting his opportunity to play. We expect him to go in and get the job done. He's a smart player, athletic, and we expect him to do it," Fisher said.
"We're not going to run the ball right because Brad's not in there."
Sanderson, who had to get to a meeting and couldn't comment, started at left tackle for three seasons at Washington State before being drafted by the Oilers in the third round in 1997. He has played in every game but one this season.
His first start comes in a must-win game if the Oilers are to keep their playoff hopes alive.
"It's wha it's all about," said left guard Bruce Matthews. "I think he'll appreciate it more as time goes by, but this is the turning point of our season."
The Oilers got good news with the return of free safety Marcus Robertson to practice. He has missed the last two games after having arthroscopic surgery on his knee. Fisher said he will wait to see how Robertson's knee reacts before deciding if he will play Sunday.
Wide receiver Yancey Thigpen, who had arthroscopic surgery last month, ran lightly at practice, but Fisher declined to speculate on whether he will be ready to play by Nov. 22 for the New York Jets.
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