Hoke was on the nose with his performance
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Both teams had already fumbled, and the Steelers had run a kickoff back for a touchdown before Tennessee's offense even made it onto the field here Sunday, so maybe you failed to notice how a football game that began as bedlam and cooled off to merely crazy seemed to turn on something as mundane as a line plunge for no gain.
Vince Young, whose 142 passer rating was the NFL's best on Kickoff weekend, had just zipped back-to-back completions to Justin Gage, one for 9 yards to the Steelers' 28, the next for 17 to the Steelers' 11.
So it was time, apparently, to turn things over to Chris Johnson, he of the 12 consecutive 100-yard games; maybe send him up the middle to impress backup nose tackle Chris Hoke.
Hoke was not impressed.
Smacked No. 28 to the grass without ceremony for zero yards, but somehow a world of import.
"He's so fast and he's so good on his cutbacks that we wanted to make sure we kept our gaps, held our gaps and stayed square to the line of scrimmage so there were not cutback lanes," Hoke said in a sweat-flooded Steelers' locker room. "And there weren't any today."
Hoke is one of those players who is comfortable with praise as long he's dealing it. He is not comfortable absorbing any, which is convenient because it never seems to stick to him anyway. Here's a guy who has started 16 games in relief of probably the best nose tackle in Steelers' history, Casey Hampton, and has walked off the field a winner 15 times.
Still, after nine years in Pittsburgh and he's still among those rare Steelers who can get in and out of a Giant Eagle without a security detail.
"I'm not an A-lister," he said after perhaps the best game of his NFL life. "Not like Aaron Smith."
Hoke meant that for Smith to overhear, but Smith had vacated the adjacent locker in just about the only time a Steelers defender was out of position all day.
Prior to Hoke's first tackle, there had been no indication from the Titans' offense that it planned to play the next 57 minutes like the junior varsity at the Nashville School For The Chronically Uncoordinated. But one play after Hoke flattened Johnson, Young began going to pieces. He called time when he couldn't recognize his own formation at the Steelers' 5, then called time again when he couldn't get tight end Craig Stevens to line up in the spot he'd just spent a time out talking about. That got Tennessee flagged for delay of game, relocated at the 10, and awarded the limp consolation prize of a field goal.
The Titans didn't score again until long after Kerry Collins relieved the clueless Young, until after they'd turned the ball over seven times, until after the Steelers had built a 16-point lead in the face of similar offensive dysfunction.
And when Johnson did break loose for 85 yards and a touchdown in the second quarter, Hoke knew before anyone that it wouldn't count because Titans center Eugene Amano had both hands inside the shoulder pads of one Chris Hoke.
"I'm just glad it was called," said Hoke, who immediately yipped to the nearest official. "A lot of times it isn't and it can be very frustrating."
Not as frustrating as that flag was to the home team.
"That's not something you get over very easily," Titans coach Jeff Fisher said. "He made a great run, a great effort, and for all intents and purposes I thought the play was over, it was done. It wasn't. So we didn't get back into the end zone until there was less than two minutes left."
In between, Hoke had gone to his knees with a stinger, but stayed around to torment an accomplished Tennessee offensive line all day long. He put together another modest statistical line, as nose tackles will: two tackles, no assists, and he recovered one of Tennessee's -- what was it -- 35 fumbles.
"When Casey got hurt [in the second quarter against Atlanta last week], I told Hokey that I like it when he plays," defensive captain James Farrior said. "That year he made 10 starts in a row , I made the Pro Bowl and had probably the most tackles I ever had. Hokey would start on a lot of teams. We're just fortunate to have that kind of a backup."
On a day when a fractured offense produced next to nothing, when players on every Steelers unit were felled by the vicious humidity of Tennessee's Indian summer, the satisfaction with this 19-11 victory was palpable within the sweat-flooded locker room. It was evident everywhere, including on the faces of two generations of Rooneys. Satisfaction is when you haven't gotten an offensive touchdown in regulation yet and you're 2-0.
As for Hoke, he embodies, in an important sense, the bedrock humility of the organization. As the backup nose tackle left the locker room at the end of a battering work day, he was preceded through the LP Field concourse by Dan Rooney, the patriarch of the franchise, the chairman emeritus.
The United States Ambassador to Ireland was dragging his own suitcase.
First Published September 20, 2010 12:00 am