Carolina Panthers

Rock Hill's Hope takes active role in rebuilding Titans' defense

There were many who thought Chris Hope had lost his mind in the spring of 2006.

After all, he was wearing his brand new Super Bowl ring won with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the crowning achievement in a lifetime of playing for winners.

Then he signed a free agent deal with the Tennessee Titans, who had won nine games the previous two years. The six-year contract was certainly a factor, but after playing at perennial winners such as Rock Hill High, Florida State and Pittsburgh, he said he was looking for something new.

"I think back to college, and it was easy to go where I went, with all the talent we had there," Hope said. "I was looking for a different challenge, a chance to create something, be a part of building something."

And unlike in Pittsburgh, where he was often lost in a sea of elders, Hope had a chance with his new team to be a leader again, and that clearly mattered.

He responded on the field last year by posting career highs in tackles (128), interceptions (five) and passes defensed (15). But his contributions have gone far beyond stats. He's been charged with shepherding a young secondary that keeps getting younger, with the drafting of first-round free safety Michael Griffith.

Their charge has been to rebuild the Titans defense, which was last in the league a year ago, but fifth entering Sunday's game against the Carolina Panthers.

Hope has taken an active role, spending the offseason rounding up the secondary and some of the linebackers for near-daily workouts, meetings, basketball games or just hanging out, trying to create a bond.

"We were basically spending all our time outside work with each other," Hope said. "This game is all about showing that you can trust one another, play with a passion, and not let your teammates down. What we were able to do away from the field's helping."

He's already establishing himself as one of the trusted voices. The 27-year-old joked that he was a "young veteran," and that his youthful teammates were "keeping him young."

Even the old guys around Tennessee, the ones there when they were good before the big slide, recognize what Hope has brought.

"Chris brings leadership to our secondary which was lacking leadership for a couple years," linebacker Keith Bulluck said. "He brings playmaking, knowledge of the game, and experience. We didn't have too many veterans in that secondary before, but Chris Hope came in and got a lot of those guys on the right path. He's doing a great job on this team as a leader and a player."

Coach Jeff Fisher echoed those sentiments, saying that Hope's Super Bowl ring and three national title game appearances at Florida State were key to their pursuit, once they escaped their salary cap problems and were able to sign free agents again.

"We had a couple lean years and we needed some experienced veterans that had come from some winning programs," Fisher said. "Chris is one of those guys. We were targeting him as the perfect guy to come in take over the strong safety position. Chris has done a real good job of showing the younger guys the way. They have all taken notice and that's a very close knit group. He's been a great addition."

Hope likes Nashville, thinks it's more like the area around his hometown than Pittsburgh had been. But it's what's happening on the field that has him excited, and he's eager to prove himself as something other than one of the disposable parts the Steelers have run through in recent years.

"This is a good opportunity for me, and I'm looking to establish myself as one of the premier safeties in the game," he said. "We're still trying to become a consistent playoff team. We've shown some flashes this year, but we've still got work to do, and so do I."

So while he's not quite become a household name, he's making the kind of plays that Fisher was looking for to change a sagging defense.

He got his first interception of the year last week, getting a fourth-quarter pick against Oakland with two minutes and 33 seconds left. Hope recognized the play from his film study, saying that in such late-game situations, team's typically go with a small handful of plays they run well. He picked up a tell from the way one of their receivers lined up, and was able to seal the game with his interception.

"There are other safeties in the league that are getting most of the attention and that's OK," Fisher said. "Chris is a very smart player. He is reliable, dependable, and durable. He understands things.

"Last week he made a great adjustment on a ball and was able to get an interception that was the big difference in our ball game at the end. I was watching the formation as the play unfolds and he basically told his teammates what they were going to get and made a play."

For Hope, such plays are payback to Fisher, a coach he compares to others he's played for, and one he hopes to bring the same kind of winning he's always known back to.