At George Washington Carver High School in Columbus, Ga., they used to count Chris Hubbard’s pancake blocks, which were dutifully recorded whenever the talented offensive tackle’s opponent wound up flapjacked onto his back.
Acknowledging the old football axiom that a pancake is in the eye of the beholder, someone came up with 77 for Hubbard’s senior year pancake total, so the problem wasn’t that Hubbard, who makes his second professional start for the Steelers this afternoon in Miami, did not get enough pancakes. The problem was that he did not eat enough pancakes.
He’s probably the smallest offensive tackle in the NFL today, a presumption with which he politely disagrees.
“I don’t think so, no,” Hubbard said after practice the other day. “I’m 298, 299. I’m listed at 285, but they never change that. That’s what I weighed when I got here.”
As Hubbard assumes some major responsibility for protecting the quarterback in today’s installment of an ever-mutable Steelers story of immense promise, he’s not the only one around his house who’s growing. His son, Creed, turned three weeks of age the other day.
“Doin’ great,” Hubbard beamed. “He’s growin’ like a little weed!”
Thus there is plenty on the 25-year-old Hubbard’s mind as he faces the future, but that future is a little front-loaded right now, especially with fully grown and menacingly overgrown people like Mario Williams and Cameron Wake manning the defensive end spots along the Dolphins’ four-man front.
“The first job is beatin’ the tackle,” Wake told a media gaggle in the Miami locker room this week, “whoever the protection is. The hardest thing is beating some big, fat, ugly O-lineman.”
Wake couldn’t have meant anything personal with that regarding Hubbard. For Hubbard to be insulted, Wake would first have to know who he is, and when you’ve made exactly one start in three-plus years in the league, it’s unlikely you’ve been on the radar of someone like Cameron Wake.
Since 2010, or soon after they stopped cataloging pancakes at GWC High, Wake ranks fourth in the league in sacks with 65.5. He’s Hubbard’s main problem this afternoon, but Problem No. 2 is Williams, one of the biggest defensive ends in football at 6-6, 300.
“Williams will be there a lot,” Hubbard said. “Then Wake will come in and they’ll flip Williams to the other side, depending on whether it’s their base defense or their nickel front.”
Despite talents like Wake and Williams roaming Miami’s defense, there remains little fear of the fish league-wide. Miami’s 1-4 and was in need of overtime just to beat the Cleveland Browns. The Dolphins have had six coaches in the 10 seasons Mike Tomlin’s been in Pittsburgh, and those six coaches are a combined. 62-88. Essentially, if Hootie and the Blowfish were still around, the Dolphins would still be making Darius Rucker cry. That’s probably the case even though we’re currently fresh out of blowfish.
“We’ve done some good things on defense, but now, doing it for 80 plays vs. 73 plays, that’s the issue,” said Wake, the eight-year vet out of Penn State. “The other seven plays when you don’t do it are the plays where you get explosive plays, you get long passes or long runs and that, obviously, screws everything up.
“One play here, one person not being in their gap or not being where they’re supposed to be, that kind of ruins the plays that you did well.”
The Steelers have only a passing interest in and even less empathy for whatever afflicts the team that plays at 2269 Dan Marino Boulevard. The many maladies at work for the Aqua and Orange aren’t enough to preclude an upset special from unfolding right there in Miami Gardens, which is why the Steelers’ momentum needs to be sustained, today as always, by people like Chris Hubbard.
Last Sunday against the Jets, Hubbard became the fifth different back-up to start for Tomlin’s team, and today Ricardo Mathews could become the sixth as defensive end Cam Heyward takes his ailing hamstring to the bench.
The most important mission of the moment is to keep Ben Roethlisberger upright, as he has long been a noted danger to South Florida sea life. Ben’s 4-1 lifetime against Miami with a 109.9 passer rating. He’s thrown nine touchdown passes without an interception in the last two meetings.
Yet recent Steelers seasons of much promise have not come down to Ben and Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell and Cam Heyward and Lawrence Timmons. They’ve come down to bit players. Last season came down to Fitzgerald Toussaint and an ill-timed fumble on a cold night in Denver. It’s only imperative that these bit players do their bit. Something about a standard.
“I’ve got some game experience now and it’s really helped me out this week,” Hubbard said. “I know what to expect and I know what I have to work on to achieve this week too.”
So he’s aware of the standard.
“Oh yes sir,” he said.
It says here Hubbard is up to this. But a few pancakes, either consumed or delivered, certainly wouldn’t hurt.