Jerry Hughes is proving that qood technique and proper leverage are more important than girth in setting the edge.
The Bills' star defensive end weighs only 254 pounds but he's having an excellent season defending the run. He has been especially effective setting the edge, which is keeping the running back from getting outside his right end position and onto the perimeter of the defense.
"He's very powerful for a small body," said Bills defensive line coach Mike Waufle. "He knows how to leverage. He does a good job with his vision. Anybody can be leveraged. Those big guys, when they weigh 350 pounds, we teach them how to break them down to 180. Jerry understands that concept, so it's hard to run his way."
The Bills face a pedestrian New York Jets offense Thursday at Met Life Stadium. New York ranks 23rd in yards and 21st in points per game. Aside from making turnovers, letting the Jets get the running game rolling is the one way the Bills can screw up the game.
The Bills rank No. 3 in the NFL against the run, allowing just 80 yards a game.
Hughes ranks No. 1 this season among all 4-3 defensive ends in run defense, according to Pro Football Focus. He has the third-best "run-stop percentage," which counts run stops of 2 yards or fewer (more or less).
Setting the edge is critical because big-gainers happen when a running back gets quickly to the perimeter. A defensive end has to play violently with his hands and keep the offensive tackle from locking on and engulfing him.
Hughes says it's a combination of technique and attitude.
"It's just a mentality," Hughes said. "I think you've got to have that mentality that you're going to go out there and get the job done. It's something we've been working on with coach Waufle since back in April. He's really hammered it in our head, the techniques. He's given us the tools to go out there and do it. Once we put our hand in the ground, you fire off the ball and be more physical than the guy in front of you."
Hughes also says he's stronger this year.
"It's a testament to the strength coaches and how we've been putting in the work," he said. "We pick up 320 pounds just about every other day. So it's not like throwing around an offensive lineman is adding much more weight than we do in there."
Setting the edge also is about formation recognition. Leveraging the blocker's outside shoulder with the left arm and keeping the right arm free to go after the ball carrier is ideal. Oakland's Khalil Mack arguably is the best in the NFL at it. But Waufle said sometimes shooting inside the tackle is the proper technique.
"If blockers over-block – a lot of times they want us to go out there with them - we don't do it," Waufle said. "You want to go out there? Go. We defend the field then, instead of defending the formation. Does that make sense? If you want to take your formation way out there, take it. We're going to defend the field."
Unselfishness is key to setting the edge, too, because elite edge rushers want to go after the quarterback. Waufle has coached many elite edge rushers in his 20-year NFL career.
"I've had the Osi Umenyiora and the Robert Quinn and somewhat the Jerry Hughes syndrome," Waufle said. "That's pass rushing when it's I-backs and the pre-snap indicator tells you everything that it's a run. I think that's the hardest thing for a right end because they want to rush the passer. They're born to rush the passer."
And as good as Hughes has been against the run this season, Waufle sees room for improvement, particularly with hand placement.
"He's good in pass rush with it," Waufle said. "But I'm not satisfied with his hand usage. He's going to get even better as he goes along. That's something we're working to improve on."
The Jets rank tied for 22nd in rushing but they have tried to get the ground game going. New York runs 58 percent of first-and-10 plays, fifth most in the NFL. The Jets are averaging 3.84 a carry on first and 10, 19th best.
The 30,000-foot view: The Jets have outperformed their "tankapalooza" expectations so far but still likely are staring at 4-12 or 5-11. That's no guarantee it will land them a franchise quarterback in the draft. The "race to the bottom" in the NFL is fierce. Cleveland and the 49ers both are 0-8. The Giants are 1-6 and the Colts are 2-6. The QB-needy Cardinals (3-4) could collapse the rest of the way, too, since they've lost quarterback Carson Palmer.
The Browns, Giants and Cards need a QB. After acquiring Jimmy Garoppolo Tuesday, the Niners could look to trade out of their high position to a QB-needy team and reap a haul of draft picks in 2018 and 2019. The Jets do not have a surplus of picks in 2018. They have their own No. 1 and two No. 2s (their own and Seattle's, which will be a late second-rounder). The Jets have one pick in the third and one in the fourth.
Game-breaker: Robby Anderson is the Jets' fastest receiver. He ran the 40 in 4.36 seconds as an undrafted prospect out of Temple last season. He has eight catches of 20-plus yards and his 16.1-yard average ranks sixth among receivers with 20-plus catches.
Weak link: It appears the Jets will be without their best cornerback, Morris Claiborne (foot). The other starter, Buster Skrine, is iffy due to a concussion. Shaky Darryl Roberts will start for Claiborne.
No joke: The Jets' defense is better than its No. 26 ranking in yards allowed. The front three of Muhammad Wilkerson, Steve McLendon and Leonard Williams is good. Wilkerson hasn't practiced in four weeks due to bad toes but gets shot up and shows up on game day. If the Bills don't get takeaways, the Jets' defense will keep it close.
Stat for the road: Long-armed edge rusher Kony Ealy leads the NFL in batted down passes at the line of scrimmage with eight. The Jets had three bat-downs on Tyrod Taylor in the opener.
Story topics: Jerry Hughes