PITTSBURGH — Respect comes in many forms. For Chris Hubbard, it came a couple years ago when the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman learned he was no longer on the hook to pick up the massive spread required for the line’s weekly Thursday night get togethers.
“I’m good now,” Hubbard said with a laugh.
It just took a while, which is maybe fitting for a late bloomer.
A practice squad player after being signed as an undrafted rookie in 2013, the 26-year-old Hubbard will start at right tackle for the AFC North-leading Steelers for the next four weeks while Marcus Gilbert serves a suspension for violating the NFL’s performance enhancing substance policy. Starting isn’t new for Hubbard, who has already done it six times this season while filling in for various injured players. Being given the job for a set amount of time is another matter.
No checking the injury report. No wondering if the regular starter is going to recover in time for kickoff. The gig, at least for the next month, is his.
“That helps out a lot,” Hubbard said. “Especially for me for my mindset, knowing that going from week to week knowing (I’m starting) will really help me out tremendously.”
The opportunity also comes at a unique time in Hubbard’s career. He’ll become a free agent in the offseason. All five men ahead of him on the Pittsburgh depth chart are signed through at least 2018. If Hubbard wants a chance to become more than a security blanket, he may have to do it elsewhere.
“After this year, we’ll just see where it goes,” Hubbard said.
Hubbard would rather focus on where he’s going Sunday night. At 6-foot-4 and 295 pounds, Hubbard is the smallest Steelers lineman by far. He gets by on technique and versatility, attributes his teammates believe should help him against Green Bay’s disruptive front seven.
“He’s like a Swiss army knife,” right guard David DeCastro said. “He’s settled in real nicely at right tackle. Had a lot of good reps. He’s been a good player. He’s been in the league five years. He’s been around. It’s not like a normal young guy. He’s got a lot of experience.”
Hubbard is the latest in a string of linemen the Steelers have transformed from fringe prospects to vital role players. Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and left guard Ramon Foster both joined the Steelers as undrafted free agents. This year they’ll make a combined $6.3 million protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side. Hubbard is making $1.7 million as a backup, though if his audition goes well, his salary could take a significant uptick next spring.
That’s a little too big picture for Hubbard to get into. He’d rather just do his thing. Trying to keep pace with New England for the top spot in the AFC and closing in on a second straight division title is enough to worry about. If Hubbard blocks the guy in front of him, the rest should take care of itself.
“He understands what’s at stake,” running back Le’Veon Bell said. “The train has been rolling. He’s going to hop in and do what he do, help this run game go, help the pass game go. He’s going to do his job and we’re going to get it going.”
Hubbard stressed there is “no resentment” toward Gilbert, who is barred from the team facility until after the Steelers face the Patriots on Dec. 17.
“We’ve just got to uplift him,” Hubbard said. “That’s our brother.”
A brother who will watch the stretch drive from afar. Hubbard, meanwhile, will try to pick up where Gilbert left off. Pittsburgh lit up Tennessee last Thursday in a 40-17 rout. Gilbert, who offensive coordinator Todd Haley called the best right tackle in the league, played an important part keeping Tennessee in check in the second half.
Hubbard kept close watch as it happened. He understands the standard. He’s spent a significant portion of the season trying to uphold it.
“We control our own destiny man,” Hubbard said. “Everything’s got to come through Pittsburgh. We got to continue to ball and that’s the task at hand.”
NOTES: WR JuJu Smith-Schuster celebrated his 21st birthday by skipping practice due to a sore hamstring. The NFL’s youngest player said he planned to play video games and eat some cheesecake but pass on legally buying alcohol for the first time. … TE Vance McDonald (ankle) also did not practice. … Roethlisberger (illness), S Mike Mitchell (ankle) and LB James Harrison (back) were full participants.