PITTSBURGH – Chris Hoke still wonders if it’s safe to exhale at this point in his career.
The Steelers’ probable starter at nose tackle Sunday in Tennessee, Hoke came to town nine years ago as an undrafted free agent out of BYU who made the team because of a ferocious work ethic and attitude. But Hoke was released later in that first year so the team could add R.J. Bowers.
Hoke came back the next year, worked even harder, made the team again, and was released again later in the year, this time for Erik Totten.
In 2003, same thing, but this time he wasn’t released, and that’s been the pattern to this day, when Hoke will ask – earnestly ask – certain reporters every August whether they’ve heard anything about his chances of making the team.
Is he serious?
“I always worry about that,” said Hoke. “That’s my thing. I came in as a free agent, so I always worry about it. I’m always like that. It’s a mindset, because you never know.”
That fear of failure drives Hoke, even though he’s one of the top backups on the team. And he has the stats to prove it.
Hoke has replaced Casey Hampton at nose tackle for 17 starts, and in those starts the Steelers are 15-2. And both losses deserve asterisks.
In one loss, in Oakland in 2006, the Steelers allowed only 98 total yards, but lost because of two interception returns for touchdowns (one for 100 yards).
In the other loss, the one that capped Hoke’s breakout 2004 season, the New England Patriots and Bill Belichick cheated to beat the Steelers in the playoffs.
So, you have to cheat, or get very, very lucky, to beat Chris Hoke.
“I don’t know if you lose anything. You go from Hamp to Hokie and you get another great player,” explained defensive end Aaron Smith. “Hokie could easily start for many, many teams in this league. He’s that type of player. But he stayed here. We’ve been blessed to have him as a backup, so when Hamp goes down I don’t think you miss a beat with him.”
Hampton went down Sunday with a hamstring injury in the second quarter of the game against the Atlanta Falcons. While the five-time Pro Bowler helped hold the Falcons to only 10 yards rushing on 8 carries (1.3 ypc.) to that point, Hoke stepped in and anchored a run defense that allowed only 48 yards on 17 carries (2.8 ypc.).
The Steelers have allowed only five 100-yard rushers since Dick LeBeau began his second stint as defensive coordinator in 2004. None of those occurred on Hoke’s watch.
“Hokie’s going to make some plays for you. He’s got good mobility,” Smith said of the 6-2, 305-pounder who often delights teammates at the end of stretch sessions with a split and jump-laden jig known as “the Hokie Pokie.”
“He can get out there, create some plays for you and disrupt some stuff. Hamp’s going to require a double team and that makes our job a little easier on the outside, but Hoke’s a great player with good mobility, so he can make plays.”
So, it’s talent.
“No,” Hoke said. “Everybody steps up. They know Hamp’s not in there and everybody steps up.”
But what about that athleticism on the nose? Doesn’t it help the Steelers’ defense a bit?
“Sometimes it works to my advantage and sometimes to my disadvantage,” Hoke said. “I can get outside a little more, but sometimes it gets me in bad positions.”
Ever the humble man.
Ever the gigantic heart.
“I want to prove to these coaches that I can still go in there and there won’t be much drop-off,” Hoke said, as if he were still a youngster trying to make the team.
“That’s my mentality every time,” he said. “I think Hampton’s the golden child, and I want to go in there and show these coaches they can still win with me. That’s what drives me.”