Sam Hubbard is developing into a star defensive end for the Bengals
Sam Hubbard’s blend of athleticism and relentless effort makes him difficult to stop.
I would bet some longtime Bengals fans felt like something was missing once their defense hit the field for the first time on Sunday. Or make that someone was missing.
Aside from what turned out to be a one-year rental down in Tampa, Michael Johnson had been a fixture at defensive end since Cincinnati drafted him in the third round back in 2009. The 6’7, 280-pound Johnson became the full-time starter in 2010 and his ascension just so happened to coincide with the Bengals’ selection of another defensive end, the 6’6, 285-pound Carlos Dunlap, in the second round earlier that spring. Together, they formed a pretty formidable tandem on the edges of the Cincinnati defense for most of the past decade.
Johnson started 106 games over his nine seasons with the Bengals, including all 15 of the games he played in last year. In his career, he managed to rack up almost 400 tackles, 33 pass breakups, eight forced fumbles, four interceptions, and 44.5 sacks, with all but four of those sacks coming while he was wearing a Bengals uniform.
Well, all good things must come to an end at some point, and with Johnson’s retirement this offseason, there has now been a changing of the guard at defensive end in Cincinnati.
Last spring, the Bengals drafted another defensive end in the third round, probably with the idea he would be the heir apparent to Johnson. If that was their thinking, Sam Hubbard certainly did not disappoint as a rookie. The 6’5, 265-pound Hubbard may not be as tall as Johnson, but he showed last year he is every bit as talented of a defensive end.
Maybe even more so.
If you haven’t heard much about Hubbard, the first thing you need to know is he hustles every time he’s on the field.
Hubbard didn’t start a single game last season, but he was still able to notch six sacks over the course of the year. For context, Johnson only put up more sacks in a season once, back in 2012.
I’m just saying!
I will also note that four of Hubbard’s six sacks came in the final seven games. I would venture to guess Hubbard’s play at the end of last season had to make the Bengals’ brass feel pretty comfortable with him taking over for Johnson this year.
One of the things that made me pay attention to Hubbard early in his rookie year was just how hard he hustled.
Cincy lined him up all over the place up front and no matter where he started off, he would end up flying all over the field. He made a lot of plays just busting his ass to get to the ball, even when it looked like he didn’t have a shot to get there at first.
His ability to kick inside and rush the passer well did not escape my notice, either. That kind of versatility is uncommon for rookie defensive linemen, so it kind of jumped out at me.
Hubbard showed he was ready for primetime last season and now he would be getting the opportunity to really make a name for himself in this second year. Preseason being what it is these days, I didn’t know quite what to expect from Hubbard this past Sunday against the Seahawks, but I was definitely excited to see how he would blossom as a starter.
Well, if the early returns are any indication, Hubbard is actually going to be a decided upgrade this season.
I’ll be honest and say I was initially leaning toward naming Titans edge rusher Cam Wake as the Hoss of Week 1 because his pass rush production, including forcing a safety, in a dominating win over the Browns was outstanding, But at the end of the day, I just couldn’t ignore Hubbard’s production as a run defender along with the fact he had a pretty good day rushing the passer as well.
To me, Hubbard had the best all-around game of any edge rusher this past weekend.
As much as anything, it was once again his hustle that really got me fired up watching Hubbard’s film this week. The guy continues to play the game with great physical ability, technique, and skill, but man does it do my heart wonders watching how relentless he is chasing down plays.
I want to illustrate just how good of a game he played overall on Sunday by highlighting a few of his more impressive plays. Not all of the plays I chose would be considered “big” plays, but they were all “good” plays that showcased Hubbard’s best attributes as a defensive end.
First let’s begin with a play that went into the books as a simple 3-yard run.
Play No. 1: Hubbard’s technique saves a first down from being an even bigger gain
With 10 seconds to go in the first quarter, the Seahawks were facing a second-and-2 from the Cincy 35-yard line. Hubbard was lined up as the right defensive end in a six-technique, head up on Seattle tight end Will Dissly. Quarterback Russell Wilson was lined up in shotgun, with running back Chris Carson offset to the offense’s left.
The Seahawks were trying to run Carson on a zone cutback run, which was to start to the offense’s right, away from Hubbard, then cut back between Dissly and left tackle Duane Brown’s down block inside on the three-technique. That was provided, of course, Dissly was able to step down hard inside and cut off Hubbard and prevent Hubbard from getting inside of him.
Spoiler alert: he wasn’t able to.
Once the ball was snapped, Hubbard showed training tape-level technique coming off and shooting his hands right into Dissly’s breast plate to shock him and jack him up to keep Dissly from getting inside of him. Then Hubbard pressed Dissly back into the backfield and into what was supposed to be Carson’s cutback lane. That was just enough to affect the running back’s path as he tried to cut back.
With Dissly being smashed back into his lap, Carson had no choice but to try to jump cut outside around him. That’s when Hubbard reached out with his left arm and, along with safety Shawn Williams, took Carson down for a gain of three yards.
While I would have loved to see Hubbard actually escape of Dissly’s block with a rip move (preferred) or arm-over (acceptable), I can understand why he might have felt like he didn’t have time to do all that and just reached out to take Carson down.
Still, my small quibble aside, that was just about exactly what you’re looking for from your 4-3 defensive end in a six-technique on that play. One of Johnson’s best qualities was his ability to take on blocks and play the run, and Hubbard showed on that play that he isn’t too shabby his damn self.
Next I want to point out one of those hustle plays I referenced earlier.
Play No. 2: Hubbard didn’t give up and turned an almost-sack on Wilson into an erratic throw
So, that drive continued, obviously, with Carson getting the necessary yardage for a first down. Three plays later the Seahawks were at the Bengals’ 44-yard line after Hubbard sacked Wilson on a bootleg on first down.
Now, with 13:25 left in the second quarter, Seattle was facing third-and-22.
This time, Hubbard was at left defensive end in a nine-technique outside of Dissly, who was aligned as the standup stud tight end to that side. After avoiding Dissly, who tried to bump him on the way out on his route with a quick arm-over, Hubbard noticed that Seahawks right tackle Germain Ifedi was late and slow with his kick step — and, for some reason, looking at a linebacker instead of out at Hubbard.
In a flash, Hubbard turned on the jets to zoom right past the flailing Ifedi, who could barely lay a glove on Hubbard.
However, Wilson put on his patented wizard hat and without ever even appearing to glance in Hubbard’s direction, he seemed to sense he was closing in and stepped up to avoid the sack. To his credit, Hubbard sold out and dove at Wilson’s legs, but he just missed them by that much.
For a some guys this would be the end of the story for that play, because they would have lingered on the ground lamenting their misfortune. But not Hubbard.
He hopped up off the turf immediately and went right back to chasing Wilson. Hubbard had to dive one more time, but he was eventually able to take Wilson down from behind and force him into an off-balance throw that landed harmlessly on the turf out of bounds.
Technically, the Bengals only had a three-man rush on that play with Dunlap spying, so had Hubbard felt sorry for himself and stayed on the ground, there was a chance Wilson would have pulled off another one of those scramble drill big plays he is known for.
Play No. 3: Hubbard used an excellent move against a bad offensive tackle for his second sack
Yes, I do love Hubbard’s hustle, but don’t get it twisted: He isn’t just an effort guy. He has also has some serious skills when it comes to rushing the passer, as he showed throughout the game on Sunday.
Go back and look at Hubbard’s second sack of the game. Clinging to a 17-14 lead in the middle of the third quarter, the Bengals forced the Seahawks into a second-and-19 after Dre Kirkpatrick came on a corner blitz and sacked Wilson on first down. Now it was once again Hubbard’s turn.
Lined up opposite Ifedi again as the left defensive end in a wide five-technique, Hubbard initially came off the ball low and hard with his hips turned and used his hands as he approached Ifedi to give the impression he was going to try a power move. Ifedi, who, let’s face it, is not a good right tackle, played right into Hubbard’s hands by drifting backward instead of getting depth.
When he got within arm’s length of Ifedi, Hubbard shot his hands at Ifedi’s chest as if Hubbard was going to bullrush him. Ifedi bit — hook, line, and sinker — stopped his feet, turned his hips perpendicular to the line of scrimmage, and tried to sit down to brace for power.
Hubbard quickly retracted his arms, stepped wide with his outside foot, and shot a strong rip move with his inside (right) arm under Ifedi’s punch, which was relatively easy now that Ifedi’s feet might as well have been covered in cement. Hubbard was by Ifedi so fast that Wilson had barely finished his dropback before he felt Hubbard’s arm around his torso.
Try as he might, Wilson couldn’t stay upright. Hubbard had his second sack of the game for a loss of 11 yards.
Play No. 4: Hubbard refused to let Wilson seal the game, at least giving the Bengals a final chance to win
Let me end with another play that showed off not only Hubbard’s hustle, but also his athleticism.
The guy was truly hitting all gas, no brakes all game and a perfect example of this was right at the end. The Bengals were down 21-20 and needed the ball back for one more last-ditch attempt at pulling out a win on the road.
The Seahawks were facing third-and-16 with just a 1:15 left in the game. It wasn’t likely the Seahawks were going to convert anyway, and they would probably call something conservative to keep the clock running. However, someone on defense was still going to have to make a play to force a punt, and the more the Bengals could limit any positive yards on that play, the more likely they would end up with better field position on the ensuing drive.
On this play, Hubbard was back at right defensive end. He was initially in a six-technique again but Seahawks starting tight end Nick Vannett, who started off lined up to Hubbard’s side, traded over to line up on the other side of the formation as a wing before the snap.
After the snap, though, Vannett went back across the formation behind the line and looked as if he was going to kick out Hubbard. At the same time, Seattle’s left tackle, Duane Brown, blocked down inside while Wilson faked a handoff to Carson, which was supposed to look like another zone running play away from Hubbard’s side.
See, Seattle wanted Hubbard to take the run fake and go inside with Carson. Vannett’s fake kick-out block was also supposed to encourage Hubbard to crash down hard inside with Carson.
Rather than kicking him out, Vannett went around Hubbard to the outside so he could act as a lead blocker for Wilson, who ran the ball on what was, for all intents and purposes, a quarterback sweep to that side. The wide receiver to that side, Malik Turner, was lined up about five yards outside of Brown, and his job was to seal the “linebacker” to that side, safety Shawn Williams, while Vannett took out the corner, William Jackson.
It was actually a very nice play design. All of the blockers did their jobs well, too. Turner sealed Williams off inside, and Vannett took out Jackson by submarining his legs. Wilson should have had a nice alley between those two blocks to run through with only green grass and the other safety, Jesse Bates III, standing between him and a first down, which would have effectively ended the game.
And he would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for that meddling Hubbard!
Instead of crashing down inside of Vannett with the run fake to Carson, Hubbard shuffled a couple steps inside and slow played the read/option action. When he saw that Wilson kept the ball, Hubbard turned back outside and busted his ass to try to catch up to Wilson.
Look, I don’t know what the guy runs in the 40, but I do know it ain’t that easy for anybody to run Wilson down from behind on a read-option play like that. Not only did Hubbard catch up to, and tackle Wilson after just a 5-yard gain, his hustle is what forced Wilson wide in the first place and kept him from turning up into an alley.
Imagine Bates trying to make that tackle with the game on the line.
I can almost guarantee you nobody was more appreciative of Hubbard’s effort on that play than Bates.
Ultimately, however, even though he helped force that punt which gave his offense one more shot at a victory, Hubbard’s efforts went for naught as the Bengals still ended up losing. Individually, he probably couldn’t have hoped for a better performance to start off his first season as a starter, though.
While Johnson performed admirably and reliably during his nine years in Cincy, and was a fan favorite, it was definitely time for a change. With a performance like the one he turned in Sunday, Hubbard showed he is just the man to fill those shoes.
With his stat sheet stuffing — 10 total tackles, including 2.5 tackles for a loss, two sacks, and two pressures (one which came while rushing as a defensive tackle) — along with his outstanding effort all game, it is my pleasure to award Hubbard my Hoss of the Week honors for Week 1 of the 2019 NFL season.
With an Honorable Mention to Cam Wake in Tennessee.
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