Steelers express 'faith, belief' in new starting right tackle Chris Hubbard
For the next four games, the Steelers will readjust to life without right tackle Marcus Gilbert while he serves a four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy against performance-enhancing drugs.
While Gilbert sits at home, the Steelers will face two division opponents and the defending Super Bowl champion — and biggest road block to securing home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs — in that span.
If, unlike the stock market, past performance is an indication of future results, the recently resurgent Steelers offense can expect improvement running the ball but a regression in the passing game over the next month.
When Chris Hubbard started five games at right tackle and played parts of two others in place of Gilbert this season, Le'Veon Bell had a higher rushing average, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wasn't nearly as efficient.
Those starts for Hubbard came while Gilbert was nursing a hamstring injury over two stretches of games, with the Steelers sometimes heading into those weekends with Gilbert's availability unknown.
Now, there is no doubt about Gilbert's participation. He isn't permitted to be around the team until Dec. 18, the day after the Steelers play the New England Patriots at Heinz Field.
“We have a lot of faith and belief in Hubb,” Roethlisberger said Tuesday on his weekly 93.7 FM segment. “He's played a lot this year, and we know he'll step up to the challenge and be ready to go.”
In four seasons with the Steelers, Hubbard has made 33 appearances, including 10 starts. Eight of those starts came at right tackle, the first three in 2016 when Gilbert was out with an ankle injury.
Hubbard's presence on the roster makes Gilbert's absence easier to digest, coach Mike Tomlin said at his weekly news conference.
Tomlin had “no reaction” to Gilbert's suspension, preferring to focus on the “adjustment” to Hubbard moving back into a starting role.
“Sometimes you're faced with adversity and the things that you do in terms of how you respond define you,” Tomlin said. “Thankfully for us, Chris Hubbard playing is nothing new for us. He's played a lot this year. He's done an awesome job of upholding the standard.
“From that standpoint, I'm excited for him and excited to watch him meet the standard of expectation.”
The Steelers are 5-0 in games Gilbert has started and 3-2 with Hubbard in the lineup. Those records are misleading because Gilbert missed the final 15 snaps of the Week 2 win over Minnesota and played only 22 of 64 snaps in the Week 6 win at Kansas City.
Hubbard has played 70.1 percent of the offensive snaps this year, including some as an extra blocking tight end. Gilbert has played 33.6 percent.
With Hubbard manning right tackle, B.J. Finney will become the extra blocker while serving as the top backup on the interior of the offensive line.
“He's probably as accountable and really as solid in that area as Hubbard,” Tomlin said.
Roethlisberger, however, said Gilbert's absence will be evident in some areas of the playbook.
“When you're missing a guy like that, it hurts us in terms of some of the extra stuff we do,” Roethlisberger said. “Our depth is hurt. So much of the offensive stuff that we like to do is hurt as well.”
With Gilbert at right tackle, the Steelers averaged 3.38 yards per carry. During Hubbard's snaps, that average was 3.65 yards, and he started when the Steelers rushed for 173 yards against Baltimore and 152 against Cincinnati.
In the passing game, however, Roethlisberger has a 66.2 completion percentage and 103.3 passer rating with Gilbert protecting his right side, compared to a 58.6 completion percentage and 76.4 rating with Hubbard.
The Steelers also have scored 10 touchdowns in 18 red-zone trips with Gilbert on the field compared to 7 touchdowns in 23 chances with Hubbard.
Hubbard also doesn't have Gilbert's experience working alongside right guard David DeCastro. Gilbert and DeCastro have spent the past five seasons starting next to each other.
“It's a comfort level with Dave, familiarity working with an opponent,” Roethlisberger said. “It's just the continuity between Dave and Gilbert. It can be a look or some verbal things they can say to pick up blitzes.
“It helps that we've got Hubb working. It's not like he hasn't played this year.”