Jerry Hughes can feel the fresh air that has blown into One Bills Drive.
He isn’t exactly taking swipes at Doug Marrone and the previous Buffalo Bills coaching staff, at least not publicly. But he is making it clear that Rex Ryan and the new staff are a welcome change.
“We kind of put that behind us,” the defensive end said of Marrone’s surprise departure three days after the end of last season during the team’s recent voluntary offseason conditioning program. “We’re focusing on the new season. We’re excited about the coaching staff we have in front of us, they’re excited working with us. All the lines of communication are open, so we’ve been ready to work.”
It was no secret that friction existed between Hughes and Marrone.
They had a verbal altercation near the end of last summer’s training camp after Hughes openly challenged Marrone for yelling at the entire team for a practice fight that had broken out for the second day in a row. Hughes also spent an inordinate amount of time on the sideline after drawing an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty in the second quarter of the Dec. 7 loss at Denver.
Hughes is looking forward to playing for Ryan, who is arguably the most popular coach in the league with many current and former players, in large part because he gives them the freedom to be themselves. The coach is known to have a fairly high tolerance for practice skirmishes, and even encouraged them as defensive coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens.
“You’ve got a great rapport from just guys throughout the NFL community – old players, players still in the league – just speaking of how great of a coach he is, how player friendly he is,” Hughes said. “So you know when you have a guy like that who’s going to be teaching you the game of football, it’s going to be fun.”
For Hughes, the enjoyment starts with a defensive scheme that will give him and other members of the front seven ample opportunity to do what he does best: rush the passer. His 10 sacks in each of the past two seasons went a long way toward allowing him to receive a new, five-year $45-million-plus contract before he could become a free agent last month.
This season, Hughes is expected to chase after the quarterback as both an end and an outside linebacker, because Ryan’s defense calls for a variety of fronts and has pass-rushers work from different spots along the line. Hughes will do the bulk of his rushing from the edge, but he could find himself inside occasionally.
On some plays he’ll have his hand down, as a traditional end. On others he’ll stand up, as an outside linebacker, a role that will also include him dropping into pass coverage every now and then.
Hughes was with the Bills in 2013, when Mike Pettine, Ryan’s former defensive coordinator with the New York Jets, ran the Buffalo defense. It has been widely assumed that the Pettine-Ryan connection would mean the Bills’ current defense would resemble the ’13 version, but Hughes insists that isn’t the case.
“No, no, no … this is a completely different scheme,” he said. “This is Rex Ryan’s defense and we know it, so it’s going to be a lot different.”
What won’t change is the Bills’ goal of having the best defense in the NFL. They didn’t achieve that last season under previous coordinator Jim Schwartz. They did well, ranking fourth in total yards allowed and at or near the top of the league in other categories, but not well enough, according to Hughes.
“So there’s still a lot of room for us to grow – with the new scheme, with everyone understanding their role in the defense and just how we can work throughout that,” he said. “For us, we want to build on that. You always want to be the best at what you do and that’s what we kind of pride ourselves on and that’s what we’re looking forward to accomplishing.”
Hughes’ greatest challenge will be to learn how to be as effective as possible in pass coverage. That figures to consume the largest portion of the coaching that he and fellow end/outside linebacker Mario Williams get from their new position coach, Karl Dunbar.
What’s the hardest part of learning how to cover pass-catchers?
“Just communicating with the secondary,” Hughes said. “Being a defensive lineman, you don’t really communicate with them at all, if any. All of our calls come from the middle linebacker, so I think for us, getting on the same page as a whole and just having all 11 guys being able to work throughout the defense and really understand what’s going on” is the key.
For a two-week stretch beginning April 6, Hughes and the many other players who attended the Bills’ voluntary conditioning program spent some classroom time getting familiar with the new playbook. It was their first opportunity to get to know the verbiage of the new scheme.
Beginning Tuesday, he and his teammates will be on the field for the start of a voluntary veteran minicamp.
“I’m still learning a lot,” Hughes said. “It’s still kind of brand new to us, so we still have to wrap our heads around that. I think it’ll really take hold when we can take the classroom out to the field. For a lot of us, we’re a lot more visual learners so that’ll be something that will help us out, too.
“We still have a long way to go. You’ve still got to put on pads. Everyone’s got to understand the playbook, everyone’s got to understand their role, so I wouldn’t say it’s a complete team. But we’re really excited about the future and we’re excited for the season.”