“This season, Hughes will be featured in the playmaking position at outside linebacker after playing mostly defensive end last season. Using a more traditional Rex Ryan defensive system this season should allow Hughes to line up wider more often, much like he was in Jim Schwartz’s wide-9 scheme when he last had double-digit sacks.”
That was a statement taken from a piece by Olivia Merrill posted to BuffaloBills.com. It was exciting to hear prior to camp, especially because it contained some buzz words. Specifically, it piqued my interest hearing that Hughes would line up wider, just like he had under Schwartz during his one year as defensive coordinator.
Hughes’s play making ability was evident through the first nine weeks of the season, frequently terrorizing opposing QBs. In fact, was third in the NFL in total pressures by an outside linebacker with 39. Though he started the season on fire, Hughes finished the season with 50 total pressures, which equates to only 11 over the final 7 games of the season. Clearly Hughes did, in fact, start the season as a high impact play maker from the rush linebacker position typical of Rex Ryan’s defense.
But to fans’ dismay, that play making ability seem to disappear as the season went on. His role seemed to change, as did his production. A lot of that had to do with the rise of Lorenzo Alexander.
The Ryan brothers schemed more plays for him — specifically games or stunts between him and Kyle Williams. The role that Alexander was filling was one that Hughes has played in the past. So what’s the reason for the drop off from Hughes? After taking a look at the film, it was a mixture of the role the coaches put him in, Jerry’s lack of discipline defending the run, and overall ineffectiveness at getting to the QB.
Early in the season, Hughes was one of the Bills’ most disruptive players versus the run and the pass. Against Baltimore he had four stops, which is the most he had in any one game in 2016.
Hughes is lined up wide, and he knows that corner Ronald Darby is helping in run support. He is able to play aggressively versus the tight end. He swims and holds the back to three yards.
Jerry isn’t known for being the best defender on the Bills at stacking and shedding. As in the play before, you can see his strength versus the run is his first step. On this play from week two versus the Jets, Hughes does a nice job of stacking, yet still being in a position to make a play if the back bounces it wide.
The coaches mixed up the scheme to help Hughes make plays much more often early in the season. Sometimes they gave him the freedom to ‘freestyle’, like on this play. Hughes reads the outside zone, so he shoots the inside gap, which means that he is spilling the play to the inside linebackers (ILBs must flow over the top). As he gains inside position, he adjusts his angle upfield which forces Forte to ‘bang’ it inside where pursuit is. It was a play where Hughes was in a position to make a play because of the scheme and the trust of the staff in other players adjusting to Hughes’ choice.
In the first nine games, it is my opinion that Rex utilized more of his style of defense. It was aggressive and pressure-oriented to the point that he blitzed 31% of the time. Hughes was more involved in the blitzes that were called.
But as the season progressed his snap count decreased, and I think that had a lot to do with how he was utilized. The defensive staff always seemed to be a step behind the opponents. For the first half of the season, the defensive secondary, which was supposed to be a strength, was giving up big passing plays down the field. So coming out of the bye, Ryan had to play much more cover 2. The secondary was down Aaron Williams, so communication and leadership was lost. More cover 2 meant fewer defenders to stop the run, and that is how the the morale of the defense was broken. This was particularly evident against Miami. Another blueprint to beat the Bills’ defense was discovered, and that was by pounding the rock. They rushed for 256 yards and averaged 6.2 yards per attempt. The Bills’ defensive staff had to make adjustments, but those adjustments didn’t work.
The Ryan brothers’ adjustments vs. the run put a lot of stress on Hughes because they didn’t put him in the best position to win play-to-play. Take a look at this 53-yard run versus the Fins. Buffalo brings out an umbrella defense, one of the defensive fronts Rex likes to go to when he really wants to shut down the run. It put Hughes at a 6i technique and one-on-one with right tackle Ja’wuan James. Hughes is a good player, but confining him inside and in tight quarters against an athletic tackle does not favor his skillset. The defense is called to keep Preston Brown free to get downhill, but because Corbin Bryant doesn’t occupy the double team, the guard gets to Brown. Jerry executes his assignment and stacks but is unable to shed and make the tackle. The result isn’t completely his fault, but this is an example how he was not properly utilized.
Against the pass, changing to more of a two deep shell forced Rex to pull back the reigns on blitzing to help on the back end. He only blitzed 21% of the time from the bye week on. This meant more four man rushes, which meant that he needed to devise ways to get the most out of his defensive line. To do this, Rex and the staff began calling more plays/stunts for Alexander and Lawson.
This was not necessarily the worst move, as it shows the staff believed in Hughes’s ability to disrupt on his own. To the staff’s chagrin, that philosophy change didn’t work.
But the lack of production wasn’t all on the staff. They tried isolating Jerry at times, but more often than not he would just run the hoop wide. Watch Dareus slant inside to occupy the guard and center in order to get Hughes one-on-one with James.
Hughes averaged 89% of the snaps in the first nine weeks, but just 68% of the snaps the rest of the year. I believe this reduced playing time discouraged him and took a toll on him mentally.
New head coach Sean McDermott will be counting on Jerry to return to his 2014 form now that he is back in an even front defense. We all hope to see the dynamic, albeit sometimes frustrating, version of Hughes at the start of the 2017 NFL season.