By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — It was a big game for the Pittsburgh Steelers this past week, so they broke out their secret weapon: Chris Hoke.
In the 17 games that Hoke has started during his now 11th NFL season, the Steelers are an amazing 16-1. The only loss was at Oakland in 2006 when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw four interceptions with two being run back for touchdowns and one from 99 yards out.
“Hokie don’t even count that one,” Steelers defensive captain James Farrior said. “We gave up less than a hundred hards in total offense during that game, so we should not have lost that game.”
Some believe that Hoke played the best game of his career, but the 6-foot-2, 305-pound veteran was rather humble when discussing it. Hoke had two tackles and a quarterback pressure against the Tennessee Titans this past Sunday.
“People in here (in the locker room) have told me how well I played,” Hoke said. “I had some good plays, but I still have to get better. I have to work on the little things and improve my game every week.”
In five games this season, Hoke has just those two tackles, and he has 79 total stops in 113 career games with two sacks and a fumble recovery. These are moderate stats at best, so why have the Steelers been so successful with him as a starting nose tackle.
“What I make of that is that Casey Hampton, one of the best nose tackles in the league, goes down but it’s not anything I do,” Hoke said. “It’s like everyone on the team knows, when a player of that caliber goes down, everyone else has to step up. So, it’s a team effort, and that makes my job easier.
“I had some good plays, but my personality is that I don’t focus on that. I don’t focus on the good things I do. I focus on things I have to do better. That’s what this is all about. It’s always about getting better. So, yes, I may have had some good plays, but there were also plays where I could have done better.”
Hoke that that maybe some opponents underestimate the Steelers defensive line when he’s in there instead of Pro-Bowler Casey Hampton. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said that after a slow start — when Chris Johnson opened the game with a 21-yard run — both sides settled in and played hard.
“Then it turned into a lot sub-package football,” Tomlin said. “That won’t be the case this week, so he needs to be prepared to play more snaps than he played a week ago.”
The Steelers held the Tennessee Titans to just 66 rushing yards. Farrior believed it was due to the Steelers playing well fundamentally and paying attention to detail to help turn things around. Larry Foote cautioned that it was just one week, and that effort must be repeated against the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field.
“We had Hokie in there, and we’re the run-stoppers,” Foote said. “That’s why we played so well. No, truthfully, it was a reality check after the previous week. We needed to step up in a big way, and we did that.
“But we have another challenge this week with Maurice Jones-Drew coming in here. He’s a tough, little guy, and it’s going to be critical for us to stop him.”
Hampton believed he had a chance to practice this week and possibly start against the Jaguars, but Foote will be back out there next to Farrior while Lawrence Timmons remains outside in injured James Harrison’s vacant spot. Foote likely will remain there, as Harrison is expected to miss several more weeks after surgery to repair a fractured eye socket, and he believed that would cause no drop in his play.
“Without a doubt,” Foote said. “I could still start in this league. It was working on my ego a little bit, not playing much. But I know I can still do it. I might have been a little bit rusty, but I watch a lot of film and prepare mentally every week even if I don’t get physical reps.
“But I know that given an opportunity, I know I can make plays. Anyway, I’m my biggest critic, so I know when I’m not performing up to my standard. And that standard’s just as high as anyone would have for me. So, I’ll get the job done if I’m in there. Don’t worry about that.”
Amazingly enough, Foote was not credited with any tackles or any stats whatsoever against the Titans.
Thursday Practice Notebook
After struggles with their punting this season, the Jacksonville Jaguars signed 11-year veteran Nick Harris this week to get ready for the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday at 1 p.m. at Heinz Field.
Steelers second-year player Antonio Brown wants a chance to test him out.
“They got a punter now who’s good at directional punting, and they wanted a guy who could keep the ball down the sideline and kick it where they want him to kick it,” Brown said. “They gave up a couple big returns, so they got rid of the other guy and brought a new guy in. So, we’ll see how he does this week.
“I feel really good, because I try to make a splash every time I get an opportunity. I’m going whatever I can for my team in situational football, and I just have to continue to be sharp and make good decisions and make plays every time I get my hands on the ball. That’s the way I have to approach it.”
Mike Tomlin was asked if teams appear to be kicking away from Brown this year, but the Steelers head coach did not believe that was the case.
“I don’t know if he’s done enough to dictate that at this point,” Tomlin said. “He hasn’t even gone to the house. I think they’re going to kick it to him.”
Brown heard about his coach’s comments.
“That’s the truth,” Brown said. “They’re trying to keep it away sometimes, because they kick it out of bounds. So, I just have to be patient and wait for my chance, and when I get it I have to make the most of it. As long as I’m moving forward, I’m going to move it out on kickoffs. So, either they’re going to kick the ball out of bounds or I’m going to run it back.
“That’s the same thing for me if the ball was kicked from somewhere else. It’s pretty much the same thing for me, because I’ll run it back if I get the chance. I can help change field position and help out my team with a big return, so that’s what I try to do. I’ve been so close to taking one back, and I believe it’s going to happen sooner or later. I hope it’s, because I’ve been real close.”
J.Scott Starting RT
Since Marcus Gilbert’s left shoulder injury still causes some discomfort, Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said that veteran Jonathan Scott should start at right tackle. Gilbert would be the backup if he can play. Doug Legursky should start at left guard with Ramon Foster on the right side of center Maurkice Pouncey.
“Everything’s going pretty good, but I’m just trying to stay consistent,” Foster said. “That’s the biggest thing for me. That’s my main focus. And we had a great game last week. We went into that game to prove a point, that if we can get the running game going our offense can really click.
“Ben said at the beginning of the game that we didn’t need any more `my bads’ up front. We needed to step up in a big way, and that’s what we did. So, we needed to take that game on our backs and roll with it. And we really played well together. We communicated well, and we opened up some holes.”
The Steelers ran for 174 yards last week, and they get Rashard Mendenhall back as the starting running back this week. Isaac Redman is the backup and third-down back, while Jonathan Dwyer should get some work as well.
B-Mac Is Back
Cornerback Bryant McFadden played briefly against the Tennessee Titans, and he made one solo tackle. It was his first action since the opener at Baltimore.
McFadden missed most of training camp and the preseason with a hamstring injury, and he re-aggravated it against the Ravens after limited playing time.
“Well, I feel pretty good this week, but I’m not quite sure how they’re going to use me just yet,” McFadden said. “We all want to make sure that I’m completely healthy, and we’ll take it from there. Whatever their plan is, I just have to be prepared and do whatever they ask me to do. (But) I still prepare the same way every week, because I know how this game is.
“Even if you have a limited role, you never know what’s going to happen. So, I have to prepare the same way every week, like I’m going to play. I need to make sure that I have my body right. That’s the most important thing for me right now, because I don’t want this injury to last the whole year. I need to be completely right before I push myself all the way.”
McFadden probably shouldn’t have played in the season-opener, but he was not used to the problems that occurred from the injury.
“No, this is my first time ever being injured this long and especially with my hamstring,” McFadden said. “I guess if it could have happened, maybe I’d take it in high school or college, maybe elementary school or something like that. But it happened now, and I’m dealing with it the best that I can.
“It’s been real tough to come back from, but it just take a lot of rest and rehabilitation. And these are the cards I’ve been dealt with, so I just have to fight through it and most importantly stay on top of it and stay healthy once I get back completely. So, that’s going to be my challenge.”
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau noted that he called for more dime packages with six defensive backs as opposed to the standard nickel (five) group against the Titans since Lawrence Timmons was in a pass-rushing spot.
So, instead of replacing him there and moving him to a coverage spot, the Steelers used a six-man secondary with Ike Taylor, William Gay, Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu, Keenan Lewis and Ryan Mundy as the extra DB.