One of the most important players on the Seattle Seahawks defense has yet to record more than four tackles in a game this season. He has two sacks, one very unlikely interception, and on any given Sunday, he might be completely unnoticed by the casual fan.
Welcome to the world of a run-stopping defensive tackle.
When the Seahawks signed Ahtyba Rubin in March, the move flew mostly under the radar, but nine months later, that free agent signing is a huge reason why the Seahawks rank second in the NFL in rush defense, allowing just 83.2 yards per game on the ground.
While nose tackle Brandon Mebane has been a steady presence at defensive tackle for the entire Pete Carroll/John Schneider era, the Seahawks have gone through several players at the other defensive tackle spot, most recently Alan Branch and Tony McDaniel, and while Seattle has gotten strong play out of several players in that role, Carroll said earlier this week that Rubin has been the best three-technique defensive tackle to play for him in Seattle.
While pass rushers like Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril have done great things this season, and while the linebackers and defensive backs make a lot of the big plays, the Seahawks defense wouldn't be what it is without its two run-stuffers who do the often-unnoticed dirty work of occupying blockers so others can make plays.
"It really starts right there, it starts right in the middle up front." Carroll said. "Every running play those guys are significant factors. They have to maintain their gap control, and also allow the linebackers to fit properly by their play. So it starts with Brandon right there, and Ahtyba has been a fantastic addition to us. He's been very consistent, just been so rock solid and so hard to knock off the football. You can't do those kinds of (run defense) numbers without that kind of play starting right there. The safeties and the guys on the edge, they just can't affect it that way as much as the guys in the middle. So we owe a lot to them setting the standard for us for being able to fit with the discipline that it takes, and the consistency that they've been able to bring back and forth week after week has given us a chance to keep that running game in order. They're doing a great job."
With Rubin and Mebane leading the way, the Seahawks have held four straight opponents under 60 rushing yards, including the Adrian Peterson-led Minnesota Vikings rushing attack that at the time led the league in rushing yards. In that game, Peterson, the league's leading rusher, managed just 18 yards.
In a lot of ways, it's those numbers that the Seahawks don't allow that measure the way Rubin is playing rather than the ones he puts on the stat sheet.
"Tuba is doing some great things," Avril said. "It's unfortunate it doesn't show up in the stat book, but if you watch film, you notice him. Him and Mebane both, we'll watch film and their production on our grade sheets is always great, but from the outside looking in, you don't always notice it. They do great things to allow other guys to make plays. If we don't have them, we don't succeed."
So what does it take to thrive in one of the least glamorous jobs in the NFL? Well the usual physical traits—size, strength, stamina, explosiveness, etc.—all help, but Rubin points to something else as well that is a must to do what he and Mebane do on a weekly basis.
"It's definitely grit," Rubin said. "You've got to want to do it, want to put your head in there and hold up that double team to free up Bobby (Wagner) or free up Kam (Chancellor) so they can make that big hit. It's a team and everybody's got their part."
This week, Rubin will try to do his part for his current team while facing the Cleveland Browns, the franchise that employed him for the first seven years of his career.
Rubin has fond memories from his time in Cleveland—"It was great times, great experience," he said. "It was my first NFL team. It was my dream to come out of college and get drafted and I did. I have nothing but love and good memories for that city and the time I was there." But Rubin also appreciates what he has with his new team. Thirteen games into this season, Rubin has already won more games than he did in any season while with Cleveland, where he played under five different head coaches in seven losing seasons.
"Coming to a Super Bowl team, (they've) been to the Super Bowl back-to-back, being a part of that great defense I had watched from the outside, to be a part of that was a pretty easy choice for me," Rubin said.
Prior to Sunday's game, Rubin will reconnect with some of his former Browns teammates, then come 1:05 p.m., he'll go about being a hugely important, if not always noticed, part of a defense that has allowed the second fewest yards and third fewest points in the NFL this season.
"He has just been a beast," Wagner said… "He gets double-teamed all the time. It's an unglamorous job. He doesn't get the respect he deserves, but he gets a lot of respect from the guys in this room who watch the film and see what he brings every game."