Starting is nothing new for Steelers right tackle Chris Hubbard
The Steelers are turning to a backup who has been their starter this season more than the starter has.
In the wake of Marcus Gilbert’s four-game suspension, Chris Hubbard takes over as the Steelers right tackle for the next month.
Then again, it was only two weeks ago Gilbert took over for Hubbard at that same spot. Hubbard, in fact, has played right tackle in seven of the Steelers’ 10 games this season, starting five.
For six of the 10 games this season, Hubbard has been the Steelers’ most-used right tackle.
Backup? Not now. Not this season.
“He’s been a good player. He’s been in the league five years. He’s been around,” right guard David DeCastro said. “It’s not like a normal young guy. He’s got a lot of experience.”
An undrafted free agent in 2013, Hubbard has been in the league so long, his alma mater (UAB) killed its football program (in 2014) — and brought it back (this season).
He has been in the league long enough that he’s eligible for unrestricted free agency after the season, too.
For Hubbard, that makes this opportunity all the more fortuitous. He will be able to market himself to other teams based off game tape from no fewer than 11 games this season.
That could make the suspension of — and earlier hamstring injury to — Gilbert potentially worth millions to Hubbard.
“I haven’t even been focused on that,” Hubbard said before practice Wednesday, four days prior to the Steelers hosting the Green Bay Packers. “I’m focused on this year right now, and I am trying to get to the Super Bowl with this team and that’s the main goal.”
Dating to last season, Hubbard has been the Steelers’ starter at right tackle in eight of their past 19 regular-season games.
In appraising his performance so far this season, Hubbard said, “I feel pretty good.”
“I look at the game tape, and I go back and re-evaluate myself,” he said. “I’m always hard on myself (but) then (offensive line coach Mike Munchak) will say, ‘You did a good job here,’ and it makes me feel better.”
If accounting for the games in which either Gilbert or Hubbard played more than 90 percent of the Steelers’ offensive snaps at right tackle as full games (during the Week 6 win at Kansas City, Gilbert started and played 34 percent of the snaps; Hubbard the rest), the offensive production under either tackle are similar.
The Steelers are averaging 366.2 yards of offense during the 4 1⁄3 games Gilbert has been playing; 358.8 yards in the 5 2⁄3 games Hubbard has. Yards per carry increases and sack rate decreases under Hubbard.
Numbers such as that — in addition to the continuity and familiarity of having Hubbard around in the locker room for so long — are part of the reason why his teammates have expressed so much confidence in him.
“(Votes of confidence from teammates) tells me that they have my back — and I got their back,” Hubbard said. “…It means a lot to me.”
Still, teammates long have remarked Gilbert is one of — if not the — best right tackles in the NFL. They lobbied hard for him to make the Pro Bowl last season.
Pro Football Focus rates Gilbert as the 11th-best tackle in the NFL this season (regardless of left or right), giving him an “above-average” grade of 80.2; the site ranks Hubbard No. 49 among tackles at 64.1 (“below average”).
The PFF breakdowns via pass-block and run block similarly are skewed heavily toward Gilbert, who is 10th in the NFL in pass blocking with Hubbard 43rd, and Hubbard is 55th in run blocking and Gilbert 29th.
That’s done little to temper Steelers expectations that Hubbard is more than capable of holding serve over the next four games until Gilbert returns for the Christmas Day game in Houston.
“It’s a great opportunity to help this team continue to do what we need to do on this streak,” Hubbard said. “It’s going to be fun.”