The way Chris Hope sees it there probably never was a better time for him to miss some extended time because of injury.
The veteran safety returned from a broken arm in the Tennessee Titans’ 30-3 victory at Carolina on Sunday after having sat out the previous four games. He also missed two earlier contests with a shoulder injury.
Already, six games are the most time he has lost to injury in any of his 10 NFL seasons, which includes four with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Previously, his lengthiest absence was in 2007 when he was on injured reserve for the final five games with a neck injury.
To say the defense did not miss him would be inaccurate, but the absence of a five-year starter and one-time Pro Bowler was not as much of a factor as it might have been. Jordan Babineaux, an eighth-year veteran signed as a free agent during training camp, started in his place and became the team’s leading tackler.
“Timing is everything,” Hope said. “A year ago or two years ago, we wouldn’t have had a [Babineaux] on the team to do that. So I would have been forced back into action a lot earlier. … It’s amazing how God works.”
Defensive coordinator Jerry Gray and his staff added Hope to one of the Titans’ pass defense personnel groups for the game at Carolina. That package included Babineaux and starting free safety Michael Griffin as well.
It became a prominent part of the defense’s approach after the Titans took an early 14-point lead and added to it throughout the contest. The Panthers became the third team to attempt at least 40 passes against Tennessee this season, yet their 212 passing yards were the fewest allowed in six weeks by the Titans.
“We had some other plays called that was out there that we had in our playbook,” Griffin said. “Just getting him back out there was great. It was a blessing. He’s a great football player. He knows the game.
“It made our job a lot easier in the secondary.”
For his part, Hope’s job was complicated by the protective shield he wore on his left forearm, which he injured early in a victory at Cleveland back on Oct. 2.
Still, he was credited with one tackle and made an interception — his first since the first game of the 2010 season. The pick ended one of four Panthers’ drives that reached Tennessee territory.
“You just have to get used to it,” Hope said. “When I tried to catch the interception, that’s what kind of stumbled me up. I had to make sure I could feel [the ball] because it was on that pad. I had to double-check and make sure I had it.”
In his sixth start, Babineaux made five tackles. That added to his team-leading total of 75 — the second most of his career — but was his fewest since Hope broke his arm.
There has been no word on when — or if — Hope will be a starter once again.
Regardless, this week’s opponent once again ought to provide him plenty of opportunity. The Atlanta Falcons have attempted 329 passes, 18 more than the league average and eighth most among teams that already have had their bye.
Hope insists he is willing to take his time.
“I’m patient,” he said. “I’m still in good spirits and I’m still going to help the team. When my chance comes they’re ready to put me back full-time, I’ll be ready.
“… I appreciate them taking the time and being patient with me.”
• Players and coaches were not prepared to proclaim themselves the team to beat in the AFC South despite the news earlier this week that Houston quarterback Matt Schaub is out, possibly for the remainder of the season, with a foot injury.
“We know he’s out, but it’s a situation where first [Andre Johnson] was out and people thought that they would fall off or whatever,” running back Chris Johnson said. “They found somebody else to step in. Now that [Schaub] is out, I’m pretty sure they have somebody else to step in. We just have to worry about ourselves.”
The Texans currently sit atop the division (and the AFC) with a 7-3 record. They have won four straight, which included a 41-7 rout of Tennessee.
“As far as how they are going to do, I don’t know,” coach Mike Munchak said. “They have some great weapons, even without their quarterback. Their defense is playing very well, they are the top two or three in the league. They still have a great running game. They still have a lot of things going in their favor, so I’m sure that they will be fine.”
• Atlanta head coach Mike Smith spent 12 seasons as an assistant at Tennessee Tech (1987-98), during which time he became well acquainted with Nashville.
“Cookeville is a great place, but if you wanted to go to the big city you always went to Nashville,” Smith said. “Nashville is a great city and I have very fond memories of living there in Middle Tennessee.”
• The Titans listed only three players on their injury report. Defensive end Dave Ball (concussion) and linebacker Gerald McRath (groin) did not participate. Linebacker Barrett Ruud (groin), who sat out the game against Carolina, took part in the entire workout.