Hoke's time at hand

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> Coming off his first back-to-back 100-yard rushing games in four years, Corey Dillon must be licking his chops as he looks at the Steelers.

One, the Steelers have allowed an uncharacteristic 4.9 yards per carry the last three games. Two, they'll face Dillon and the New England Patriots without their primary run-plugger, nose tackle Casey Hampton.

Three, look out below.

"I miss Casey. Everybody misses Casey," said Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell. "But we've got to come to the realization Casey's not going to play anymore this season."

A torn ACL in the last game saw to that. And while Mitchell could have slid former nose tackle Kimo von Oelhoffen over from right end to fill perhaps the most important position in any 3-4 alignment, he didn't.

"You don't want to move two guys for one position," Mitchell said. "Our rotation has been good the way it's been going. And, hey, Chris Hoke is a hard worker. That's all we can ask. We're going to let the chips fall where they may. I've got a lot of confidence in that man."

Everyone seems to have confidence in that man.

"I know the offensive guys are really happy," said coach Bill Cowher. "He won't be on the scout team giving us a look now, and so that's one less guy they have to go against during the week."

The defensive players are making bold predictions.

"He's going to have three sacks Sunday," said linebacker Clark Haggans.

Why?

"Because he's gonna have 'em," Haggans said before turning away.

Actually, Hoke's had them. He led the Steelers with three sacks this preseason in what amounted to his breakout after a three-year pro career in which he had dressed -- without playing -- only twice.

With that precarious resume, Hoke ventured into restricted free agency and signed the lowest tender. His agent and Steelers director of operations Kevin Colbert then lowered Hoke's salary a quarter million off the tender to minimum wage. Hoke just wanted to make the team again, and he did with his brilliant preseason showing. He took the second-team job from injured Kendrick Clancy and never looked back. Now, the recently re-signed Clancy is Hoke's back-up.

"With more reps, you play better because you feel the blocks," Hoke said of his sudden improved showing. "In training camp I was getting twice as many reps as I was getting when I was on the third team so I was able to feel the blocks better and that's why I feel I played better."

As the reps kept coming, so did the playing time. His first pro appearance occurred in Miami, and from two snaps he played five the next week and then six with a quarterback pressure against Cleveland. At Dallas, Hoke was credited with another pressure during his 10 snaps. The Steelers, of course, won all four games.

While the Steelers are expected to use plenty of nickel defense Sunday, Hoke's snap count will obviously rise. That must be the reason for all of those interview reminders taped inside his locker.

What the heck's going on around here?

"It's crazy," Hoke said with a huge smile. "There's no question I like it, but I'm not used to it. Instead of having 40 minutes to get ready for practice, I only have 20 minutes."

Make no mistake. Practice is the high point of Hoke's day. Enthusiasm is the reason an undrafted free agent from BYU sticks with a team for three-plus years without making a tackle. But that should change Sunday after Hoke is announced as a starter for the first time.

"If he was a guy who didn't work and didn't have the confidence of the other players, I would worry," said Mitchell. "But the players have faith in Chris. They see how he's relentless on the show team day in and day out. You've got to be a special guy to do that and he's done that for three and a half years, and up until this season this is the first opportunity he's had to dress. The guy's worked his butt off. I can't say how much respect I have for this guy and I feel like he's going to go out there and play well."

"I've always prided myself on being a hard worker and giving everything I've got," said Hoke. "Well, here's my opportunity."

NOTES - Plaxico Burress missed practice with a shoulder contusion that Cowher said has been bothering him all season. Cowher expects him to return to practice today and play Sunday. … Kendrell Bell practiced and Cowher said he liked what he saw. When asked if Bell would be a game-time decision, Cowher said, "We'll see." … One reporter began a question with "Coach Shanahan" and Cowher interrupted with "I really have no comments in regards to that." Cowher and Mike Shanahan, coach of the Denver Broncos, have voiced opposing opinions on a Broncos cut-block Monday night that ended the season of Cincinnati defensive tackle Tony Williams.

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