The Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals fielded two former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive linemen in their starting five on Thursday night in their game against one another. It could have gone better. After losing their right guard to injury, 2019 undrafted free agent Fred Johnson started at right guard for the Bengals. With Jack Conklin banged up, Chris Hubbard started at right tackle, where he has played for the past two seasons for the Browns.
Johnson was one of the Steelers more valued college free agent signings last season out of Florida. He caught Ramon Foster’s eye going all the way back to training camp, and he ended up making the 53-man roster, though he spent his time inactive.
During the middle part of the season, Pittsburgh needed to open up a roster spot due to the injuries at running back, which resulted in them waiving Johnson, hoping that they would be able to re-sign him to the practice squad.
That didn’t quite work out, since the Bengals ended up claiming him. He did get some playing time late in the season for them, and he was actually in competition for a starting job this Summer. On Thursday night, they chose to start him over former first-round pick Billy Price after placing Xavier Su’a-Filo on the injured reserve list.
He was responsible for giving up a sack near the Bengals own goal line to Myles Garrett that put the Browns back in first and goal—just after the defense came up with a goal-line stand to force a turnover on downs—jarring the ball loose.
As for Hubbard, or ‘Mother Hubbard’ as Mike Tomlin always called him, this is his third season away from the team who first signed him, originally coming out of UAB in 2013. He spent his rookie season that year on the practice squad, but over four seasons with Mike Munchak, developed into a starter-level player and earned that type of contract in free agency from Cleveland.
This offseason, they invested heavily in the tackle position, including adding Conklin as a free agent signing, replacing Hubbard in the starting lineup. Though the latter was active for the game against the Bengals, showing that he was close, Hubbard was given the start because of Conklin’s health.
There is, of course, a reason that Hubbard’s position was targeted for replacement in the offseason. He too had his struggles against Cincinnati’s front, even if the Bengals didn’t actually manage to get a sack, or even a hit, on Baker Mayfield.
Still, the Steelers wouldn’t mind having either one of them right now with the injuries they’re dealing with. They just brought back Jerald Hawkins and are likely preparing to elevate Derwin Gray from the practice squad. They thought Johnson was somebody they could develop. They took a chance and lost him.