Secondary Overhaul, Part IV

<b> PITTSBURGH - </b> The Steelers ranked 20th against the pass last season and didn't make a change. This season, they were eighth in the league when they made the first in a series of changes that'll most likely culminate with Chris Hope starting at free safety Sunday in Baltimore in place of Brent Alexander.

Hope, Troy Polamalu, Deshea Townsend and Ike Taylor are forming the next generation of Steelers pass defenders, and they are currently ranked 12th in the league. Hope has been the last piece of the puzzle because of the vast amount of understanding that comes with the position. But the old boss says the new boss, a second-year pro from Florida State, is ready.

"I think he'll be fine," said Alexander. "The key on defense is always communication and Chris knows that. Chris goes through everything with me every day. Every Wednesday we sit together throughout the whole game plan and so he's always in on everything I get and find out and know. We talk it over in case anything happens; same as Mike (Logan) and Troy do before every game each week. As far as that's concerned, the knowledge of the game, he'll be fine. He'll have a few more days to get prepared so he should be in an excellent situation."

Hope will replace Alexander if a.) Team doctors don't allow Alexander to play with a broken bone in his left hand or b.) Coach Bill Cowher believes the time has come for Hope to replace the 32-year-old Alexander, who hopes to play in the regular-season finale.

"I definitely would play, without a question," Alexander said. "I have a lot of reasons why. The main reason is it's hard to be on the sideline, but the most important thing in my mind at this point is I'm not going to do anything to hurt the team. I want to do everything that I'm supposed to be capable of doing when I'm on the field and I don't want to make it a hindrance at any point in time. If I can't do everything that I need to do when I'm on the field, than it's not going to be a question in my mind."

Alexander said he can make plays on the ball, but might have difficulty shedding blockers or making open-field tackles, even though he played much of last Sunday's game with the broken bone and experienced little pain.

"I had LaDainian Tomlinson wide open in the middle of the field and got him on the ground so it's a little bit of confidence going in," he said.

Alexander doesn't know when he hurt the hand, and didn't even realize a problem existed until after the game. Doctors are waiting for the swelling to go down before making a determination. Hope has waited for his chance to start since the Steelers drafted him in the third round of the 2002 draft. At the time, he boasted he was better than Edward Reed, the free safety drafted by the Baltimore Ravens that year in the first round. Reed played at Miami, Fla., and Hope played at rival Florida State. If Hope starts Sunday, the two will be playing the same position in the same game.

"A lot of publications through our years of college had us ranked alternating No. 1 safeties in our class, so he definitely has been a rival," Hope said. "I think we're always going to be competing against each other until we finish playing football.

"Coming into college I think I was the more highly touted guy and then our junior year we were still close by and now he's kind of escalated. But my chance has come and hopefully I can get back into that race with him."

Last season, Hope played in 14 regular-season games and both playoff games. He'd landed in Cowher's doghouse during the season because of poor effort on special teams, but has since become a standout in kick coverage. Hope has 14 special-teams tackles. On defense, he has nine solo tackles, all of which occurred in the last five games.

"The biggest thing is just being confident in myself and knowing the defense," he said. "I'm pretty sure there's going to be little things an experienced guy wouldn't do that I may make a mistake on, but other than that I think I'm ready."

NOTES - Joey Porter's wife, Christy, gave birth to the couple's fourth child yesterday. He was with her in Bakersfield, California, and missed Wednesday's practice. … Also missing practice were Alexander, running back Jerome Bettis (knee) and wide receiver Hines Ward (abdomen). Alexander is listed as questionable and Bettis and Ward are probable for Sunday night's game. … On the Ravens' injury list are guard Bennie Anderson (knee), linebacker Peter Boulware (knee), linebacker Edgerton Hartwell (chest) and tight end John Jones (leg). All four players are questionable. … If Steelers back-up wide receiver Freddie Milons doesn't play Sunday, the team won't owe a draft pick to the Philadelphia Eagles. The seventh-round pick was contingent upon Milons appearing in a game this season. … For the second time this season, the Steelers added offensive guard Marcus Pears of Colorado State to their practice squad.

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