In the days leading up to the first playoff game of his NFL career, defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin found himself waking up earlier, "just anxious to get to this moment."
But once the first postseason of Rubin's eight-year career actually began, things were normal, he said. And Rubin playing like he usually does was very good news for the Seahawks in their wild-card victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
Rubin, who in seven seasons with the Cleveland Browns played on seven teams that finished with losing records and had five different head coaches, signed with the Seahawks this offseason and took over the starting defensive tackle role that had previously been filled by Tony McDaniel, and before that Alan Branch. And while he doesn't play a position that gets a lot of attention, Rubin has quietly been one of the most important offseason acquisitions the Seahawks made in 2015.
With Rubin and Brandon Mebane anchoring the middle of Seattle's defensive line, the Seahawks led the NFL in run defense for the first time in franchise history, and did not allow a single 100-yard rusher all season despite facing four backs who finished in the top eight in rushing yards: Adrian Peterson (twice), Todd Gurley, Darren McFadden and Jonathan Stewart. Against Minnesota Sunday, Seattle limited Peterson to just 45 yards on 23 carries (2.0-yard average). In Peterson's two games against the Seahawks, the NFL's leading rusher tallied just 63 yards on the ground.
"You've got to give all the credit to Mebane and Ahtyba Rubin," defensive end Michael Bennett said. "Mebane and Rubin, they've been playing great defense. They don't get a lot of credit because they don't have the stats of some D-tackles, but up front we've been number one in the run game, and you've got to give credit to the front when that happens… To have the number one rush defense and not give up a 100-yard rusher, that says a lot about your team."
While Rubin's work in the trenches can be easy to miss at first glance, he did have one play that jumped out Sunday, recovering a fumble on the sideline after Kam Chancellor stripped the ball from Peterson following an 8-yard reception.
"I played the play like I normally do—hit the guard, look towards where the ball is going, chase it down, and I just saw it pop on the ground and I just jumped on it and got the recovery," Rubin said.
Rubin seeing that as a routine play explains one of the biggest things the Seahawks liked about Rubin when they signed him. It's not normal for a 325-pound defensive tackle to be in position to recover a fumble down field on the sideline, but that kind of hustle is a big part of Rubin's game.
"I didn't realize this during the game, but after watching the film, he played a terrific football game," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "He was all over the place chasing the ball. His play at the line of scrimmage was really stout. Taking on double teams, and splitting double teams, and making big tackles. And he does chase the football. He's been doing that all year long, and that's exactly what happens to guys that run like that, he's there. Earl's (Thomas) the first guy there and goes flying by the ball, and then Rubin got his hands on it and would not give it up. But he's had a fantastic season, and I thought he had a fantastic football game."
Carroll has been saying all season long that if you watch Rubin long enough, you'll see him make a big play with his hustle. Carroll usually mentioned the possibility of a big hit, and there have been some of those, but it turned out that Rubin's extra effort in his first postseason game helped secure the turnover that set up Seattle's go-ahead score.
"He's done that all year long, and couldn't have been better than to happen in this game too," Carroll said. "… He's unique. I think it really stands out, because he's a big, strong, tough football player that he's just got the mentality to take off and run. Most guys don't run like that. We pride ourselves on pursuit, as everybody does, but when you see your biggest guys inside running like that, it fires everybody up. I promise you (defensive coordinator Kris Richard) showed his plays in the film room over and over again today, and everybody's cheering for him and all that. And then when he gets that big fumble recovery, which is a huge play in the game initiated by Kam, those guys are really fired up for him. He inspires guys, so that's a big deal."
Team photographer Rod Mar traveled with the Seahawks on their first leg of the playoffs to Minnesota and took these photos for this week's photo essay, featuring the nail-biting win over the Vikings in the Wild Card matchup.