CINCINNATI — Sam Hubbard isn’t one to focus on numbers and statistical goals, but it was hard not to pay attention to his own stat line from the Cincinnati Bengals’ season opener.
The Cincinnati native and second-year defensive end finished with 10 tackles, two for losses, two sacks for 16 yards, and four quarterback hits, as the Bengals fell 21-20 at Seattle on Sunday. It was a game in which the defense put the team in position to be successful against a traditionally strong Seahawks team and the offense just couldn’t capitalize on enough opportunities.
A friend sent Hubbard a text with his stats after the game and even he was a little surprised. He hopes he can do something similar in front of his friends and family Sunday, when the Bengals (0-1) play their home opener against the San Francisco 49ers (1-0).
“It was really cool to see,” Hubbard said. “It was exciting. Obviously, we want to get a win, but it was a great day personally.”
What a way to begin his second season.
Hubbard, a third-round draft pick last year, showed several flashes of potential as a rookie, recording 39 tackles, one fumble recovery, seven tackles for loss, six sacks and nine quarterback hits as a backup to Michael Johnson. Johnson wasn’t re-signed in free agency this offseason and Hubbard was ready to step into the starting role.
Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, for one, wasn’t surprised by anything he saw from Hubbard on Sunday.
“Sam’s breakout game, if you want to call it that, is one of the least surprising things I've ever seen, because he’s been so consistent day to day,” Taylor said.” He's exactly the kind of player you love to coach and be around, and you're combining talent with relentless effort, and that usually pays off.”
Defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo said Hubbard played a complete game and even some of the things he did in the run defense that didn’t show up in his stat line were impressive.
The Bengals held the Seahawks, who led the league with 160 yards rushing last year, to just 72 yards rushing.
“He beat the tackle one-on-one and got himself a sack, chasing the ball down play in and play out, how he played against the tight end -- because that is their number one run, trying to run the ball at him,” Anarumo said when asked what stood out about Hubbard’s play. “They were the best in the league at doing it last year. When they ran their favorite run, they didn’t do anything. He was one of the big reasons why, playing the tight end, playing the six technique.”
Former Ohio State and Moeller High standout Hubbard is the poster child for what Anarumo wants from his players. He runs to the ball every snap, brings guys along with him and is versatile enough to line up in several different spots, Anarumo said.
On Sunday, Hubbard was coming off the edge, playing inside on a five-man front and was even dropping back into coverage in the pass defense on a few plays. He did well wherever he lined up.
“I think it's just a credit to our coaches,” Hubbard said. “They are really good at finding what people are good at doing and putting them in positions to make plays, and really that's what they are doing. We've got big guys that stop the run in the middle and cover guys one-on-one covering guys, pass rushers rushing the passer -- it's not a tough formula, but our coaches have done a great job putting us in position to make plays.”
As a former free safety and linebacker, Hubbard said he’s comfortable playing whatever role he’s asked and that’s helped him transition to Anarumo’s system.
“Being multiple is really a big part of what he wants to do, and to just be able to be a moving piece and whatever job he tells me to do, to be able to do it, it kind of helps me stay on the field more, and that's where I want to be,” Hubbard said.
Although Sunday’s performance by the defense wasn’t enough to get the win, the game marked an important step for the Bengals, as they try to put the past behind them. The defense last year was one of the worst in the league, allowing 413.6 yards per game and 28.4 points per game, and Cincinnati set a record as the first team to allow 500 yards or more in three straight games.
Seattle managed just 233 yards of offense, which ranked the Bengals’ defense fourth for Week 1. Hubbard said Sunday felt like a complete change from last year.
“There's a lot of things that go into it, from a culture perspective, Xs and Os, all that stuff,” Hubbard said. “I think we just never panicked, never got away from what we were doing. I can't even speak to those games. I don't even want to go back to those games (against Tampa Bay, Kansas City and New Orleans last year). I like where we're at now.”
Hubbard said his own performance also gives him more confidence as he adjusts to his new roles within the defense. Having a year of experience now in the league, understanding what’s expected of him and knowing how better to prepare already had him feeling more comfortable this offseason, but it was important to see what he’s done in practice translate into the first game.
No one expects him to have two sacks a game, but he joked that 32 sacks over 16 games this season “would be a pretty good year.”
“It's a great confidence boost,” Hubbard said. “It's a great feeling. I'm happy with how it went.”
Hubbard said that, despite the loss, it was actually enjoyable to go back and watch film Monday and see how well the defensive line played as a unit. There were, of course, things to fix, but the Bengals hope now the progress pays off for a win.
“We played great up front as a whole,” Hubbard said. “Life in the NFL comes down to a few plays, but we had really a winning performance on both sides of the ball and defensively especially. We are just going to make those small corrections that caused us to leave some points on the field and we will get the wins as the season moves along.”