The Buffalo Bills defeated the Cleveland Browns 26-10 yesterday, marking the first time since 2000 that the team isn’t mathematically eliminated from the playoffs at the beginning of December. While it was a great team win, no player was more victorious than defensive end Jerry Hughes, who solidified his case to be worthy of a generous long-term contract.
When Hughes was acquired in a trade for Kelvin Sheppard prior to the 2013 season, he wasn’t thought of anything more than a rotational/nickel pass rusher in Mike Pettine’s hybrid defense. Instead, he finished the season with 10 sacks and 59 pressures despite playing just 52.9 percent of the Bills’ defensive snaps.
When Pettine departed to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, more questions arose as to whether Hughes could flourish in Jim Schwartz’ more traditional 4-3 defensive front. Throughout the offseason and training camp, fans questioned whether Hughes, who stands 6’2” and weighs 255 pounds, would be strong enough to hold up against offensive tackles as a defensive end, rather than a linebacker.
Those questions were quickly answered, as Hughes has been a dominant playmaker at the right defensive end position, where Schwartz has used him as a stand-up rusher from the nine-technique. From his wide alignment, Hughes’ has been able to wreak havoc on opposing tackles, as his speed, burst and array of pass rush moves have simply overwhelmed linemen on a weekly basis.
Prior to Sunday’s game, Hughes had amassed 9.5 sacks and 50 pressures while playing 68.8 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, but the top tackles he’s seen this year– Brandon Albert, Duane Brown, Nate Solder and D’Brickashaw Ferguson—don’t come close to the caliber of Joe Thomas.
Joe Thomas is the best tackle in the NFL and is a future Hall of Famer. Heading into the game, Thomas was ProFootballFocus’ No. 1 overall tackle (No. 1 Run Blocking, No. 3 Pass Blocking) and had been penalized just three times while surrendering only 10 pressures.
With Hughes’ contract expiring at season’s end, a strong game against Thomas would go a long way in terms of properly gauging his value as an edge defender. And Hughes came to play.
Throughout the entirety of the game, Jerry Hughes was a handful (figuratively and literally) for Joe Thomas. Hughes didn’t record a sack, but he drew four penalties (3 holds, 1 false start) and consistently got into the backfield, disrupting Brian Hoyer’s timing on a regular basis.
On the above play, Hughes’ burst off the snap forced Thomas off balance and into the lap of Hoyer. After a spin-move drew a block from left guard Joel Bitonio, Nigel Bradham was left unblocked and sacked Hoyer for a big third-down stop. Hughes incredible explosion is shown again here, as he blows past Thomas, who can’t do anything but reach out and grab his facemask.
Shortly after, Hughes forced Thomas into a negative situation due to his burst off the ball. Thomas probably should’ve been flagged for hands-to-the-face, but he still managed to deliver a blow to Hoyer as he just managed to get the pass off.
Hughes has generally been viewed as a pass rush specialist, but his play against the run has been improving every week he takes the field. He’s gotten stronger and better from a technique standpoint, knowing how to utilize his leverage to contain the edges against outside runs.
With the Bills nursing a four-point lead in the third quarter, the Browns were looking to put points on the board. As the Browns ran a toss to the left, Hughes set the edge against Thomas, forcing running back Terrance West to stay horizontal. Hughes managed to get off the block and managed to not only swat the ball out of West’s hands, but to pick it up and take it back for a touchdown.
Jerry Hughes has developed into one of the better edge defenders in the National Football League over the past two seasons and his performance on Sunday just cemented the fact that he’s the real deal. Hughes made a future Hall of Famer look silly on several plays, while consistently forcing Thomas into poor situations.
You can bet that Hughes’ agent will bring the tape of this game to the negotiating table when it’s time to sit down and iron out a new contract.