Steelers lineman Chris Hubbard’s ‘amazing’ versatility on display
When Chris Hubbard started the game Sunday as a blocking tight end, it began an unexpectedly busy afternoon for the 26-year-old offensive lineman.
By the time the Steelers’ 26-9 victory against the Minnesota Vikings was complete, Hubbard’s time at tight end paled in comparison to the snaps he took at two other spots on offense.
When Alejandro Villanueva exited because of a stomach illness, Hubbard moved into the starting lineup for 21 snaps at left tackle. When Marcus Gilbert left in the fourth quarter because of a hamstring injury, Hubbard moved over to right tackle for the final 15 snaps.
Oh, and Hubbard also played 10 snaps while taking his regular turn on the special teams coverage units.
To recap, that’s four positions — if you count special teams — played by Hubbard in one game, and that’s not counting the practice reps he has taken at center and both guard positions since the start of training camp.
That makes Hubbard the football equivalent of a super-utility player for the Steelers, who marvel at and are appreciative of his versatility.
“He’s the most complete offensive lineman in the NFL,” Villanueva said.
“Hubbs,” center Maurkice Pouncey said, “is amazing.”
Hubbard, though, could be singularly focused this Sunday against the Chicago Bears if Gilbert’s hamstring remains an issue. Gilbert did not practice Wednesday, the first of three practices this week for the Steelers in preparation of the game.
“I’m going to get myself prepared,” said Hubbard, a soft-spoken fourth-year player from Alabama-Birmingham.
The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Hubbard started three games on the line in the first half of last season when Gilbert sat with an ankle injury. He also started as an extra tight end against Cleveland in November and took snaps there sporadically throughout the second half when the emphasis on offense turned to running back Le’Veon Bell.
“The most impressive thing about him is he can carry through a lot of skill through each position,” Villanueva said. “He’s a very knowledgeable player. He sees every block, he’s very fundamental, and that’s what makes him a plug-and-play sort of player.”
Hubbard appeared in eight games, with zero starts, in his first three seasons with the Steelers after being signed as an undrafted free agent and spending time on the practice squad. He will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season after making $1.797 million — his first seven-figure salary — this year.
“I’m extremely confident in his abilities, whether it’s the multiple offensive line positions he plays,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s also center-capable, and you’ve seen that already this preseason, and obviously the work that he does for us as a situational tight end.
“It’s just good to have a versatile guy like Hubb available to us.”
Hubbard’s film study is more extensive than most players, and he takes pride in learning the nuances of each spot on the offensive line and trying to exploit weaknesses of opposing defensive linemen.
“I scout the whole line,” Hubbard said. “I could be playing tight end, I might have to play guard or tackle, or maybe even center, so I try to watch as much of the defensive line as possible.”
Hubbard also must take that knowledge onto the practice field where, for offensive linemen, getting repetitions and building cohesion are perhaps more important than any other position. When he is working with the first team, Hubbard primarily plays the tackle position that is vacated that day. When he is playing on the scout team, Hubbard said he likes to switch it up and play on the interior.
“I try to prepare myself for everything,” he said.
And that’s what endears Hubbard to the rest of the offensive line starters, who are asked to master one position, not five.
“He’s really an accountable guy who takes the job seriously,” Pouncey said. “When you have players like that who can come into the game and fill in anywhere, it makes the game roll off you even easier.”
Guard Ramon Foster also wasn’t surprised to see Hubbard play on the left and right sides of the line Sunday and help pave the way for the Steelers to rush for 102 yards against the Vikings.
“That’s Hubbs,” he said. “We always know he can do that. He can play anywhere we need him to, and we won’t miss a beat.”