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Is Buffalo Bills DE Jerry Hughes victimized by uncalled holds?

Many Buffalo Bills fans believe Jerry Hughes is held on nearly every play—but is that truly the case?

New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

It’s almost axiomatic among Buffalo Bills fans to believe the New England Patriots hold Buffalo’s defensive linemen constantly. Jerry Hughes is often believed to be the victim of these holds. Further, many fans suspect that the refs allow New England’s offensive tackles to hold in order to keep one of the league’s key assets (Tom Brady) vertical and ratings high. With Buffalo’s offensive devolution, it seemed like a good time to take a look at the opposing offensive line—particularly as it pertained to the idea of “Hughes is always held!”

First Drive

2nd and 4 (incomplete pass)

Hughes starts outside and tries to jump inside, but the offensive tackle is ready for him. He keeps his body in front of Hughes and moves well to keep in front of Hughes. He puts his hands on Hughes’ shoulders but by then the ball is gone. No hold.

3rd and 4 (Pass to running back for 7 yards)

Hughes tries to bull rush Rob Gronkowski who passes him off to the left tackle at about the same time the ball is away. No hold.

2nd and 14 (Incomplete pass)

Hughes trips while attempting to execute a twist and is never touched by any offensive lineman. No hold.

3rd and 14 (Incomplete pass)

By design, Hughes is set out wide and rams into the left tackle almost parallel to the line of scrimmage (LOS) while Kyle Williams loops around to get to Brady. The left guard helps contain Hughes and Williams folds up Brady right after he throws the ball. No hold.

Second Drive

1st and 10 (Incomplete pass)

After several plays off to start the drive, Hughes went upfield against the right tackle and executed a spin move to the inside that left said tackle wondering where he had gone. His pressure caused a near-interception by Tremaine Edmunds. On this play the left tackle was beaten by and held Eddie Yarborough, reaching his left arm around Yarborough’s chest and trying to slow him down as Yarborough tried to meet Hughes at the quarterback. An uncalled hold, but not on Hughes.

2nd and 10 (Pass to wide receiver for 8 yards)

The ball was gone so quickly that Hughes barely had time to engage Gronkowski.

1st and 10 (Incomplete pass)

Hughes dipped and ripped past the left tackle who clearly hooked Hughes’s right arm with his left arm. A second uncalled hold.

2nd and 10 pass to RB for 11 yards

Hughes again attempted to dip and rip past the left tackle but this time the tackle didn’t hook Hughes’s arm, using his right to slow Hughes down and his left to push Hughes past Brady. No hold.

3rd and goal from the 7 (Incomplete pass)

After a few more plays off, Hughes tried a spin move against the right tackle who backed up and re-set in time to stop Hughes when he came out of his spin. No hold.

Third Drive

2nd and 7 (Incomplete pass)

Hughes started outside and jumped inside when he saw the fullback to the left tackle’s left side. The tackle pushed him down the line and into the left guard. No hold.

3rd and 7 (Tom Brady scrambles for 8 yards)

Hughes was doubled by the left tackle and left guard, and he went nowhere. Lorenzo Alexander got past the right guard who held his right arm as Alexander went past him, and he continued to hold it as Brady moved left to get around them and to a hole opening downfield. Meanwhile the center held Kyle Williams as he went on a wide clockwise circle and kept holding him while he attempted to chase Brady. In each case, a ref was staring right at the flagrant holds. Taken together, that is four uncalled holds.

2nd and 8 (Pass to wide receiver for 29 yards)

Hughes tried a speed move and the left tackle was all over it. No hold.

1st and 10 (Incomplete pass)

Hughes was doubled again but spun away from both to get back towards the tackle box and forced Brady to throw early. No hold.

2nd and 8 (Pass to running back for -3 yards)

After a few plays off, Hughes was chopped down by the right tackle in a way that Bills offensive tackles never seem to manage. No hold.

3rd and 11 (Pass to wide receiver for 4 yards)

Hughes tried a bull rush but the ball was gone about the same time he made contact with the retreating offensive tackle. No hold.

Fourth Drive

1st and 10 (Pass to tight end for 11 yards)

The left guard came across the formation to pick up Hughes after the right tackle blocked to his left. Hughes spun but the ball was gone. No hold.

1st and 10 (Sack -6 yards)

The right guard came across the formation and doubled Hughes with the left tackle, but Hughes split them anyway. The right guard was able to push Hughes down as he did so but Brady was sacked by Alexander. No hold.

2nd and 16 (Incomplete pass)

Hughes tried to go upfield and was pushed farther so he did a spin move and tried to get around that way—but the left tackle pushed him again instead of holding. This gave Hughes a free path to Brady who threw the ball away. No hold.

3rd and 16 (Pass to wide receiver for 8 yards)

Hughes tried to turn the corner against the left tackle and had no luck whatsoever. No hold. (Incidentally, Brady hit the right guard in the head with the pass, which should have been a flag for illegal touching. It wouldn’t have mattered as Buffalo would have declined the flag.)

Fifth Drive

1st and 10 (Pass to wide receiver for 20 yards)

Hughes gave Gronk a chip and then plowed into the center. By the time he did so, the ball was gone. No hold.

1st and 10 (Pass to wide receiver for 9 yards)

Hughes was doubled by the left tackle and left guard until Kyle Williams tried to circle around counterclockwise. At that point, the center and left guard doubled Hughes and the left tackle picked up Williams. Harrison Phillips was circling around clockwise against the right guard who held and held and rode Phillips to the ground while still holding. As they were the only two guys on the far right side of the line at the time, there is no way the ref didn’t see it. Five uncalled holds.

2nd and 1 (Pass to tight end for 10 yards)

Hughes spun away from the left tackle but the left guard passed Kyle Williams off to the center and picked him up. No hold.

1st and 10 (Pass to running back for 4 yards)

Hughes went on a counterclockwise circle while Alexander went on a clockwise circle and the offensive tackles pushed them both past Brady. No hold.

3rd and 6 (Incomplete pass)

Hughes again circled wide and the left tackle again hooked his right arm in full view of the ref. The hold kept Hughes from hitting Brady before he threw the ball. The right tackle held Alexander by the neck, eventually pulling down the front of his collar when he got close enough to Brady. As with Hughes, he was out on the edge though the ref would have had a harder time seeing the right tackle’s hand placement as Alexander’s back was to him for most of the play. Seven uncalled holds.

In Conclusion

All told there were seven obvious holds that should have been called on a total of five plays. two of those seven were against Hughes and one of those was on a play with an additional player being held. Hughes was clearly held on two of his 24 passing-play snaps. Is he being held on every play? Clearly not, though two of 24 is a bit over 8%. An average drive has almost six plays according to Football Outsiders. Teams pass the ball roughly 60% of plays, which means the average drive has about three or four pass plays. If Hughes is held on an average of 8% of pass plays— realize, this is a small sample of one half of one game—then he’d be held about once every three drives. For quite a few offenses, holding calls are drive killers. Theoretically, if the holds were actually called, Hughes would be killing quite a few more drives.

There is a fairly common saying that the refs could throw a flag for holding on every play, but it simply isn’t true. As noted above, most of the plays had no clear holding. Hughes often took himself out of plays by using moves that just didn’t work that time but worked wonderfully at other times. Trying to dip and rip past the offensive tackle wasn’t effective when the tackle was ready to push Hughes past Brady, for example. That wasn’t a reflection on Hughes, just part of the gamesmanship that takes place along the offensive/defensive line.