Can Hope make the calls?

<b>LATROBE -</b> We know Chris Hope can run. His 81-yard touchdown off a fake punt was the Steelers' longest offensive play last season. <br><br> Hope showed the last two days he can hit, too. On Tuesday, Hope rocked Duce Staley during a live team scrimmage. On Wednesday, he drilled Jerome Bettis during the goal-line drill at Latrobe Stadium. Both were shuddering hits.<br><br>

The Steelers' new free safety also showed off his hands Wednesday morning when he out-jumped a quartet of players to snare a Tommy Maddox pass for an interception.

Run, hit and catch. There's not much else he needs to prove, does he?

"Chris has got some playmaking ability. We know that," said secondary coach Darren Perry. "But he's got to understand our defense to the point where he can take control back there, make all of our calls and get everybody lined up. If you can do that in this defense as a free safety, you allow this defense to be pretty successful because there's a lot of communication involved; there's a lot of motion, shifts and adjustments that if he can't handle our defense won't be able to play fast because everybody's waiting on calls he has to make. When he makes those calls, we can line up and play."

Ah, the mental part of the game. It's paramount at free safety. It's what kept a slower Brent Alexander in front of Hope the last two seasons with the Steelers. It's what gave Perry the starting job in 1992 with the Steelers, even though he was a lowly eighth-round pick.

Perry started the first 110 games of his -- and Coach Bill Cowher's -- career because he was smart enough to put the 3-4 fire-zone defense in proper position after the offense came set, a second before the snap.

"But," the player-turned-assistant-coach cautioned, "when I came in, this system was new to everybody, so we were all on equal playing fields. If I didn't know it, chances are no one else knew it either, so it was a little bit easier for me.

"Now we've got some veterans who've been in this system for awhile. They know a lot of the adjustments and if Chris doesn't say it quick enough, fast enough, decisively enough, they're all looking back. So he's got a little bit more pressure on him from that standpoint."

So how's Hope coming along in that regard?

"He's getting there. He's getting comfortable with it now," Perry said. "Chris isn't a very talkative guy so we've got to get him to talk a little bit more and talk a little bit louder, but he's making good strides and it's still early. We think he can get it done. He's shown the ability to at times. He's just got to be consistent and that's the thing we're looking for is consistency, play in and play out."

Hope was a three-year starting free safety at Florida State before the Steelers drafted him in the third round of the 2002 draft. He was the middle man in a three-deep zone and obviously didn't have to think nearly as much in college. Teams generally stuck "with their bread and butter, their basic plays," Hope said.

But it's certainly a different ball game in the big leagues.

"As much game-planning as there is in the NFL, and being that we're so young back there, I'm pretty sure a lot of teams are going to be doing a lot of shifts and motions to try to mess with our heads," Hope said. "The more problems we have, the more we'll see of it."

While Alexander wasn't nearly as athletic as Hope, he made the Steelers confident they wouldn't end up with a bust in the secondary. Busts back there usually result in touchdowns.

"When I first got here," said cornerback Deshea Townsend, "DP was the greatest. He knew the defense forwards and backwards, probably as good as some of the coaches. And then Brent knew it just as well. It's going to be just as important for Chris, and he's learning. It just takes reps."

"It can get hectic at times," said Hope. "You're trying to concentrate on what you need to do, trying to make sure your eyes are on your keys and trying to make sure everyone's lined up right. The biggest thing is when the crowd gets involved. Hopefully I can do as much yelling now and get everyone used to the defense and everyone knowing their parts so when we get in a crowd and they don't hear me they'll know what to do.

"I think we're jelling right now," he added. "We've had some great plays during minicamp and training this summer and in training camp. So hopefully we can just continue to grow."

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