Okay, I’ll admit it. I was nervous. When Marcus Gilbert was ruled out for the game vs the Jets, and Ryan Harris was listed as “highly questionable,” I knew what that meant. Chris Hubbard would be called upon to start at right tackle.
Hubbard had 12 games of NFL experience under his belt, with no starts. In his most recent game, in “garbage time” vs. the Chiefs, Hubbard played center. He promptly hiked the ball into his own backside on a shotgun snap to Landry Jones. His first NFL start would come not only at a position not natural to Hubbard (he played guard at UAB), but against Pro Bowl DE Muhammad Wilkerson.
One of the more important aspects of offensive line play is continuity. Adding a new player into the mix can be troublesome, regardless of the caliber of the player. Stunt pickup is a perfect example of that continuity. It’s working together with a teammate. If you’re not on the same page, well, the results can be disastrous.
That’s where we’ll start. This play came on the Steelers last drive of the first half. The Jets have Jordan Jenkins (LB) aligned as a DE (7-tech) outside of Hubbard, with Wilkerson (2-tech) over Decastro. They will stunt, with Jenkins slanting inside and Wilkerson looping outside:
Hubbard does a good job of not following Jenkins inside. The “hand off” to Decastro, while perhaps not the cleanest, was effective. Hubbard also showed awareness, as he was ready for Wilkerson, and quickly got his hands into him.
Hubbard and Decastro handled at least a half dozen stunts vs. the Jets. Some were better than others, but all were effective. Watching them, as in the GIF above, I was hard pressed to believe that it was the first game for Hubbard/Decastro together.
There was talk among fans before the game that surely Hubbard would be given a lot of help in pass blocking. They expected the coaches would have David Johnson or Jesse James aligned next to Hubbard, leaving them out of the pass pattern to assist him in pass protection. They also expected to see Bell or Williams consistently chipping on the DE, again, to assist Hubbard.
This was not the case. There were occasions where either of those happened. But it was no more than you might have seen had Marcus Gilbert been in there. The overwhelming majority of the time, Chris Hubbard was on his own in pass protection. And on most of those snaps, he was called on to block Muhammad Wilkerson.
This play comes at the start of the 4th quarter. It’s the TD to Antonio Brown. Hubbard will be blocking Wilkerson, who tries to beat him with a spin move:
Ben had to hold the ball longer than expected, as he waited for Brown to work back across the field. Hubbard afforded him that extra time. What I noticed on many of Hubbard’s snaps, and is evident here (as well as the first GIF), is his footwork. He has active feet. He keeps them moving in quick, choppy steps. I tend to think of pass protection as a “dance with the DL.” You can’t dance if you’ve got lumbering feet. Hubbard is a good dancer.
He did well to not get Ben killed. I think that was the No. 1 concern for many going into the game. Of course, the Steelers also wanted to run the ball, which figured to be a tough assignment against that Jets defensive front.
Here is the first short yardage situation for the Steelers. It came on their second possession. The Steelers face a 3rd-and-1. Hubbard will be assigned to block Steve McClendon on this zone run:
It may not look like much, but Hubbard did his job against a strong run defender. We certainly would have noticed if he had been pushed backward, and the play was unsuccessful. It’s difficult to know for certain where the play was designed to go. It does appear, however, that the O-line steps, in concert, to their left. This perhaps indicates the run is designed to hit in the C-gap, off of Hubbard. The reason I mention this is it shows the confidence the coaches have in their players: a 3rd and 1 play is expected to be picked up by running off the block of their 3rd string tackle.
That’s not to say that Hubbard was perfect. Lastly, we’ll look at a run play in the 4th quarter:
This looks like an inside zone run. Bell is likely supposed to run through the right side A-gap. Pouncey will block one LB, with Decastro sealing the other, after coming off his combo block with Hubbard. McClendon was an excellent run defender with the Steelers, and shows that he still is with the Jets. He makes quick work of Hubbard and tosses him aside.
In discussing Hubbard’s play vs. the Jets, the comparison was made to Kelvin Beachum. Both were guards in college. Both are built more like guards. Both performed better as tackles, however. Both were better in pass protection than run blocking. While we have only this small sample size for Hubbard, based on his performance against the Jets, it’s a valid comparison.
Time will tell as we move forward. There’s a strong possibility that Hubbard will start this Sunday vs the Dolphins. He may get another opportunity to show that comparison is warranted. Against the Jets, however, Hubbard proved he was capable of filling the role of the “next man up.”