11 (technically nine) defensive lineman. Four linebackers. One Russell Wilson.
How was the Bengals defense, ranked 31st in expected points just a season ago, supposed to stop one of the more creatively talented quarterbacks in Wilson on the road?
Even with Doug Baldwin retired, Wilson hasn’t had an offense this well-rounded in years. He’s always been able to make it work with subpar receiving talent, but the wide receiver duo of Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf with running back Chris Carson coming out of the backfield gives him intriguing options on all three levels of the field.
Most importantly, his offensive line has never been more talented. Lead by left tackle Duane Brown, his five blockers can finally give him space to make accurate throws without having to endlessly scramble for dear life.
Turns out, that last sentence isn’t entirely true yet, as the Bengals’ defensive line proved on Sunday. Wilson dropped back to pass just 24 times against Cincinnati, and he dealt with pressure for nearly half of the time. He was sacked four times and hit nine times.
Two of those sacks and four of those hits were courtesy of one Cincinnati native Sam Hubbard, who had what was perhaps the best performance of his now 17-game career.
So much hype attached itself to Hubbard’s name this offseason, and for good reason. The former Ohio State Buckeye logged a good chunk of his pass-rushing production last year in the final three weeks of the season. Very much like 2018 Tyler Boyd, Hubbard seemed to have converted that late-season momentum.
Taylor was not short of words when describing Hubbard’s play from Sunday.
“Sam (Hubbard)’s ‘breakout game,’ if you want to call it that, is one of the least-surprising things that I’ve ever seen.” Taylor said during Monday’s press conference. “He’s been consistent day to day. He’s exactly the type of player you love to coach and you love to be around. You’re combining talent with a relentless effort, and that usually pays off. Some of the (defensive) fronts we presented yesterday put (our linemen) in some good one-on-one situations in the pass rush, and they were sound fundamentally in the run game. Sam just capitalized on a lot of the opportunities. Like I said, it’s not surprising at all to see Sam have a game like that.”
For those who haven’t coached Hubbard these last several months, it was at least a little bit surprising. Let’s go over what Hubbard and the rest of the defensive line did to make Wilson uncomfortable for most of the game.
The speculation regarding defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo going multiple in his scheme was completely validated. On the very first snap of the game, the Bengals went with their traditional 4-man front with their nickel personnel, but on the second drive, things got different. With three defensive tackles, Hubbard and Carlos Dunlap became essentially 3-4 outside linebackers and inherited the traditional responsibilities of that position.
And they both crushed it.
The third play in the video is the one I really wanted to highlight. The Seahawks run (from what I can tell) a variation of what’s known as a sail concept. Essentially, you end up with a levels route combination towards the play side of the field with one or two vertical routes along with it. The initial alignment of the receivers gives this specific call a bit of a twist to it. The point is: Wilson wants to roll out to his right and attack whatever level of the field springs open for him.
Hubbard’s containment job doesn’t allow him to do that. So many times do edge defenders collapse too far inside when rushing Wilson that he’s able to escape and create magic on his own. Hell, the Bengals have been notorious for losing contain against quarterbacks who could scoot. This play, and a few others, helped snuff that narrative for the time being.
Hubbard was far from done eating after this play. There were two plays later on in the game were I could tell there was notable growth in his process this offseason.
What this article didn’t cover as extensively was Hubbard as a run defender, and he honestly looked even better in that role. Pro Football Focus graded him as the eight-best run defender from Week 1, which helped him snag a spot amongst their Team of the Week:
Hubbard moved around the defensive front like he usually does and consistently brought pressure. From 19 pass-rushing snaps, he racked up two sacks and two hits and added a further five tackles resulting in a defensive stop on the day.
The expectations for Hubbard as a run-stopper were already decently high, it’s why he’s starting opposite of Dunlap in their base defense. But if we can expect just half of this performance as a pass-rusher on a weekly basis, the Bengals have a lot less issues at defensive end than I originally gave them credit for this offseason.