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Buffalo Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes was better than his stats showed in 2017

We take a look at Jerry Hughes during the 2017 season and come to a conclusion on if we’d like to see him stick with the Bills.

Jerry Hughes came to the Buffalo Bills by way of trade with the Indianapolis Colts in 2013. Both teams had underwhelming players (Kelvin Sheppard on the Bills side) they were desperate to find a return on. Despite only seeing rotational play that year, Hughes made the trade look like pure gold, recording 10 sacks and 32 solo tackles. From that point on, he’s started in all but one game for the Bills.

This season marked his lowest production for Buffalo, with a scant 4 sacks, and 28 solo tackles. Hughes’ last two years were also considered disappointments, but many were willing to give him a pass with so many players taking a step backwards under Rex Ryan.

Was it as bad as the stats indicate? Let’s examine Jerry Hughes through the lens of the Oakland Raiders game. This game was selected as statistically, it was one of his worst of the year with one tackle and one assist and that’s it. This game also worked beautifully as almost everything you’d want to see on Hughes happened on the first drive of the game.

Play 1

Hughes and Kyle Williams are lined up on the right side of our screen here. Note that Derek Carr immediately runs the heck away from these guys. Both players are double-teamed away from the play and the Raiders are more than willing to take their chances with the other side of the line. You’ll also note the play-action fake misdirects toward the Hughes/Williams side. The Raiders completely sell out on stopping Hughes and Williams, which is an easy theme to spot for much of the 2017 season. Because of all the above, the only push is by the Raiders, with the entire line moving the way they drew it up.

Play 2

This one is a little longer, because it highlights how differently Hughes is used play to play. Here they try some adjustments pre-snap. As the linebackers move in to fill gaps, Hughes gets set to tee off on Carr or set the edge. Jerry is quick to see the play but because of the play call, isn’t in position to be a major factor. Had the RB flowed to the side, it would be up to Hughes to make the stop there. In this play and others, take a look at the side-to-side speed difference and reaction time between Hughes and the LBs. In 2017, Hughes often appeared to be used in ways to mask LB weaknesses, which impacts his stat line. The Bills responsible for pushing the line fail again (and yeah, that looks like a missed holding call on Kyle).

Play 3

Again we see who the Raiders care about with this play. Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes both draw an immediate double team. This is despite an obvious call to a quick timing pass where Carr doesn’t need a pocket for long. When Preston Brown looks like he’ll be able to come free up the middle a one-handed jab washes him completely out of the play. Trae Elston and Adolphus Washington are stood up on contact and are non-factors. Due to line scheme here, the Raiders have a near complete victory in the trenches and Carr could have taken longer with this throw if needed.

Play 4

And here’s why Hughes is double-teamed or deliberately schemed for. The Raiders put this play up man-on-man except for Williams who still starts to push his way into the backfield. Hughes is lined up against Donald Penn who has a few inches and 50 pounds on Jerry. Despite stutter stepping and not getting a full head of steam, the “speed rusher” Hughes dominates with a power move. Carr only needs to keep track of Hughes here with Buffalo getting overall poor push. As a result the QB gets to choose which direction to slide away from danger. It’s probably not a mistake that the play heads this direction as well, as Hughes man-to-man on the blind side is scary. Carr has eyes on the biggest threat the whole way.

Play 5

Watch this one a few times to get the most out of it. Hughes shows his burst, speed, and hand technique and it’s all too fast to catch in one go (for me at least). He rapidly diagnoses the run play and uses his edge rushing moves to make the stop. If Hughes doesn’t make the play, you might have noticed the cut back lane opening up. The Raiders once again pushed the play exactly where they wanted it.

Further thoughts

Part of the declining stats are the result of McDermott’s emphasis on rotation. Compared to 2016, Jerry Hughes played 121 fewer snaps this season (856 to 725) and shouldn’t have been expected to tally the same number of sacks or tackles. Despite the reduction in time, his 28 tackles were within striking distance from his all-time best of 36 in a season.

We can’t discount the talent around Hughes either. With the aging Kyle Williams as the only other point of emphasis for teams to take care of, quarterbacks all too frequently were able to focus in on avoiding Hughes. While the sample size makes it hard to draw definitive conclusions, three of Hughes’ four sacks came before Marcell Dareus was traded away. For the team as a whole, they averaged 2.2 sacks per game with Dareus (despite limited usage in Buffalo) and only 1.4 per game after.

Here’s some more data.

On rushes and short passes toward Hughes’ side of the field (green highlights), Buffalo has respectable rankings in defensive metrics, falling cleanly in the top half of the league in yards gained and completion percentage in the case of passes. Away from Hughes, the team fared demonstrably worse. Buffalo was one of the worst teams in the league stopping the run on plays to the right end, only did a little better against short passes in that part of the field.

Decision time

A tremendous amount of evidence suggests that Hughes’ “decline” is mostly a mirage. In 2017, Buffalo’s defensive line was less than stellar in collapsing the pocket. Without consistent threats elsewhere, teams keyed in on Hughes. Play-by-play review shows a player with plenty of power, speed, and a fair share of technique to go with a high motor. If the Bills rebuild the front 7, Hughes will look like a bargain.

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