All Sam Hubbard needs is one sack Sunday in Cleveland (1 p.m.-Cincinnati’s Channel 12) to become just the fifth Bengal to grab at least seven in his rookie season. Three of them have come in the last nine years and they’ll all be able to line up together next season.
That’s the easy part to compute. Where he’s going to line up to try it is something the Bengals are going to let the Browns figure out.
“He’s a Swiss army knife from Montgomery and I’m glad he’s here,” said assistant defensive line coach Matt Raich of his prize from Cincinnati’s northern suburbs that came home in the third round. “The guy can do anything. We drop him. We rush him. He can play the run.”
If anyone knows that it is Jim Lippincott, another luminary from the north who was Hubbard’s defensive coordinator at Moeller High School after he spent 20 years in various roles in the Bengals’ personnel department. Lippincott, now coordinating the Woodward High School defense, was on the field before last Sunday’s game at Paul Brown Stadium because he was watching two former Moeller safeties in Hubbard and his son, Raiders linebackers coach David Lippincott.
“Our whole defense ran through Sam,” Lippincott said. “The guy was so smart, he could do anything you asked him to do. His hands are so good. Unbelievable hands. I was shocked when he went to defense at Ohio State. I thought he’d be a tight end, maybe even a big receiver, because what cornerback can cover him? Really, I was thinking he’d be something like Tyler Eifert.”
That’s just it. Hubbard’s versatility is overshadowing his victories. The guy is a beast at defensive end. Sure, his quickness causes guards headaches when he’s inside at defensive tackle. Yes, he’s a terrific lead blocker at fullback on the goal line and the Bengals have mulled putting him in the tight ends room for a few moments. And he’s so reliable and long on special teams that he’s already logged 205 snaps for coordinator Darrin Simmons after he worked 15 last Sunday in between his two sacks.
But look at where he got those two sacks against the Raiders. Defensive end. Against the 15th pick in his draft. And if it looked as natural as a traffic jam off the Montgomery I-71 exit it’s because it was.
“I’ve been playing it my whole life. It shouldn’t be a surprise,” said Hubbard of a lifetime that began five years ago at Ohio State. “I feel comfortable on the edge. I’m happy to be out there in space and be able to run.”
He’ll also be happy to play anywhere and at 6-5, 265 pounds he’s just the right size to play everywhere. But he seems to unveil his most damage on the edge, which is where he reported to practice last week as the injuries continued to pile up on the line.
They’ve been without one of their two most consistent edge rushers in Carl Lawson since he tore his ACL on his first snap in the eighth game on a play that got blown dead and the injury has helped deaden the pass rush. But his loss also coincided with three rotational tackles out for the year, so Hubbard had been splitting time on the rush inside and out.
Until last week, when right end Michael Johnson had a limited week of practice recovering from a concussion received the week before in Los Angeles. While Johnson logged one of his fewest snap counts ever with 20 against the Raiders, Hubbard stayed outside for all three downs on a busy 54 plays with the two sacks that included a strip for his first NFL forced fumble, another quarterback hit that forced a third-down incompletion and five tackles.
The decision to line him up at end exclusively last week allowed Raich to work with Hubbard on some of the finer points of the rush to match it up with the scouting report on Oakland’s two struggling rookie tackles. And he’s got the moves.
“He’s from Ohio State and he and his buddy (Joey) Bosa have some of the similar stuff,” Raich said of the Chargers’ emerging star rusher. “They’ve both got swipe moves, a little bit of power and they spin.”
Hubbard used it all against Oakland left tackle Kolton Miller, the first-rounder that has been on a steep learning curve that according to profootballfocus.com has him allowing a league-leading 14 sacks and 59 pressures. Hubbard beat him with a swipe of his hands for the sack that forced quarterback Derek Carr’s fumble. Later he backed up Miller in a power move to get to Carr.
Hubbard also got past a guy taken 12 slots earlier than him in the third round when on third down he bull rushed right tackle Brandon Parker while lifting up his inside arm, showing the skull sessions with Raich paid off. Hubbard got there in time to hit Carr’s arm to force a floater and a punt.
“He just needs to keep working out on the edge,” Raich said. “If he rushes past the quarterback, keep coming back. He’s a combination of things with a lot of moves.”
Pressed to name a similar impactful young player, head coach Marvin Lewis had to go all the way back to 2005 first-round pick David Pollack, the defensive end from Georgia that Lewis switched to SAM linebacker and moved him to end on third down before his career was cut short by a broken neck in the second game of his second season.
Hubbard is moving into rarified air of Bengals rookie edge rushers. He has moved past Pollack’s 4.5 sacks, as well as the four of first-round defensive end Eddie Edwards in 1977 before he became the Bengals all-time sack leader. He’s a half-sack behind 1978 first-rounder Ross Browner’s rookie 6.5 at end. Overall No. 1 pick Dan Wilkinson wasn’t on the edge in his rookie year of 1994, but Hubbard is ahead of his 5.5 sacks.
And Hubbard has a shot at matching the eight sacks of 1990 first-round linebacker James Francis and the 8.5 of both 2001 first-round right end Justin Smith and Lawson, a fourth-round college linebacker that moved to end last season for his rookie year. Left end Carlos Dunlap may be pulling for him to break his club rookie record of 9.5, but he’ll need two in each of the last two games.
No matter what happens the next two weeks, three of the Bengals’ most prolific rookie sackers ever are slated for next year’s nickel package.
(A peek at the Browns tackles: Right tackle Chris Hubbard has had his struggles allowing six sacks, according to PFF, but left tackle Greg Robinson, a former overall No. 2 pick, has allowed just one in the 370 snaps since he resurrected his career.)
First things first. They’ve got to figure out where to line Hubbard up first. He may be a natural at end, but his versatility is a natural fit nowadays.
“He’s a tackle and an end,” Raich said. “That’s the NFL these days. First down is different than third down and we like moving him around. We’re not sure what he’s going to do. Who knows what happens this week?”
Which is exactly what they hope the Browns are wondering.