The Buffalo Bills are 7-5 for the first time since the first year of the new millennium. For that, they can largely give credit to a defensive line that is the best the team has had since even before that.
The grouping of Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes has wreaked havoc on opposing offensive lines for the past two seasons, but there are some question marks around whether the band will be back together for a reunion tour in 2015 and beyond.
One thing we know for sure: Hughes is set to become a free agent this offseason and will probably get a very nice contract wherever he lands. Players with his skill set tend to earn big contracts, and he is having a career year at the same time as he is having a contract year.
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Among all the top pass-rushers in the NFL this year, Jerry Hughes is the 11th best, according to stats website Pro Football Focus (subscription required). PFF tracks pressures on a per-snap basis, with weighting toward sacks, and finds that Hughes generates pressure more than the likes of Baltimore Ravens pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil, Green Bay Packers pass-rusher Clay Matthews, Denver Broncos defensive end DeMarcus Ware, and yes, even his teammate Mario Williams.
Last season, the trio of Hughes and Mario and Kyle Williams became the first trio in Bills history to notch double-digit sacks in one season. This year, the Bills will probably have a trio of double-digit sack artists once again, but that trio will probably be Hughes (9.5 sacks), Dareus (10 sacks) and Mario Williams (12 sacks).
The one constant has been the edge pressure of Hughes and Mario. Whereas some pass-rushing duos consist of one dominant player and another who capitalizes off the stellar play of his bookend, the duo of Williams and Hughes are both showing their dominance.
Williams was named AFC Defensive Player of the Month for November, after logging 6.5 sacks, nine quarterback hits and seven tackles for loss over the course of the month. Hughes, however, was not far behind, with four sacks, six quarterback hits and five tackles for loss.
Hughes was drafted in the first round by the Indianapolis Colts in 2010 and spent some time learning from future Hall of Fame defensive end Dwight Freeney. That shows up in Hughes' game, as the fifth-year pass-rusher utilizes a combination of first-step quickness and in-rush agility to get in the backfield.
On this play, Hughes (circled in red) rushed hard upfield against New York Jets left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson. With his explosive first-step quickness, Hughes was able to beat Ferguson to the corner.
A less disciplined defensive end may have continued to rush all the way around the back end of the pocket, but Hughes realized that his upfield rush had created an open lane for Jets quarterback Michael Vick to scramble.
Hughes saw Vick react to the gap up front and broke in the same direction. With Ferguson already reacting to Hughes' upfield rush, there was no chance of him getting in position to block Hughes' second move. Because of his quick reaction time, Hughes was able to bring Vick down for a sack before the scrambler had a chance to get into the open field.
Hughes also displays a Freeney-esque spin move, which he used on Ferguson to get pressure on Vick as the quarterback escaped the pocket.
As you could probably figure, Hughes isn't only making plays in the passing game. He has also been a force against the run, where just last week he made the play of the day when he pulled off the elusive hat trick of a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and a touchdown on the same play.
Cleveland Browns running back Terrance West was the victim of the strip, when Hughes reached in and put enough torque on West's arm to rip a tornado in half. The ball fell to the ground, and Hughes found himself in the right place at the right time.
Hughes also made his usual impact in the passing game against the Browns, finishing with three hurries and a quarterback hit. That's no small feat, considering he lined up mainly across from perennial All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas.
Hughes has been a big play waiting to happen ever since he showed up in Buffalo. In the past two seasons, he has logged 19.5 sacks, 20 tackles for loss, five forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a touchdown. There is no question he should be paid handsomely for his efforts.
The question is whether the Bills have enough in the bankroll to pay both Hughes and Mario Williams. Next season, Williams is due to count $19 million against the salary cap, according to sports contracts website Spotrac. The Bills could save $6.6 million, however, if they cut him. That seems preposterous considering the mammoth season Williams is having, but it's an option the Bills could explore.
Hughes isn't focused on the future, though; he's only thinking about the team's more immediate goals.
"It's a lot of fun," Hughes said of the season he's having, "but really my focus is on the playoffs. We know we can get there. It's an uphill battle, but everyone in this facility and in this organization knows what's at stake. For us, it's battling. Each game is so important to us."
As for Hughes' teammates, they are aware of the attention Hughes is garnering. Safety Aaron Williams has even begun calling him "10 for 10"—short for "10 sacks for $10 million, according to Tim Graham of The Buffalo News. That figure sounds about right, but Hughes could bump that number up a little if he continues to make big plays and proves to be a key in a Bills run to the playoffs.
Unless otherwise noted, quotes obtained via team news release, and stats obtained via Advanced Football Analytics.