Jerry Hughes was a noticeable player for the Buffalo Bills in Sunday's 35-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints, and not just because of his sack of Drew Brees on the Saints' opening possession of the game. He was also involved in three critical pass coverage plays that, either immediately or in the very near future, led to Saints touchdowns.
As promised, we decided to dedicate the first All-22 post of the week to breaking down those plays. Before we did that (in stills 4-12 in the above gallery), however, we dedicated the first three stills to pointing out how Hughes finds himself in coverage so often: the Bills like to drop him into zone coverages while sending blitzers from the secondary. It's a common practice for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
Essentially, what the Bills do with Hughes is this: they line him up at right end, Mario Williams over the right tackle, and put a slot defensive back behind Williams. That defensive back (usually Nickell Robey, but sometimes a safety) will rush the passer, almost always cutting inside Williams as he rushes upfield. On the opposite side of the formation, Hughes will drop into zone coverage with another player, usually Kiko Alonso, to clog throwing lanes for quarterbacks looking to throw hot reads.
The Saints, clearly aware of the strategy (which is used frequently, but not liberally, by Pettine), caught the Bills in uncomfortable situations three times. On one play, Hughes was forced off of the line and into the slot opposite Jimmy Graham, who promptly beat him inside for a touchdown. Hughes also needlessly grabbed a tight end to negate a third down stop, leading to another Saints score. On the most notable play of the day, Hughes got caught peeking into the backfield as Kenny Stills raced by him, and Buffalo's defensive backs didn't pick him up en route to a 69-yard touchdown.
During the game, fans questioned why the Bills would have Hughes "covering wide receivers" in critical situations. That's not the right way to approach the issue. The Bills have Hughes in coverage because they think he's versatile enough to handle those responsibilities as they're trying to confuse opponents and create pressure on quarterbacks. Rarely to never is Hughes in man coverage; if he is, it's usually on a running back in the flat. On Sunday, these were zone coverages - and, unfortunately, the Bills got caught by an explosive Saints offense on three plays.