Jerry Hughes didn't need long to think about whether the Buffalo Bills' defensive line will benefit from a return to the base 4-3 scheme it used as recently as the 2014 season.
"Absolutely!" Hughes said this week, after the Bills wrapped up their voluntary veteran minicamp. "It allows us to kind of play to our strength. Four guys coming off the ball, creating that havoc, closing in on that pocket, putting a lot more pressure on QBs than just allowing him to stand back there and just pick us apart."
Left unsaid, but clearly implied, is that the scheme the team used the past two seasons under Rex Ryan was not a good match.
"I think for us, we're going to get a lot more fundamentally sound," Hughes said. "That's one thing" defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier and coach Sean McDermott "are bringing to our side of the ball. They're really focusing on fundamentals, which is great, and for everybody to understand their job and how to execute it properly, which are two huge points that we've focused on this spring."
The most-cited reason for the defense's shortcomings over the past two years was communication – or more accurately, the lack thereof. Hughes said that should be a thing of the past.
"Just by the way our coaches are going about teaching the defense," he said. "Actually taking the time to break things down to us, explain the ins-and-outs so that way if we have questions on the field, we can go out there and ask them and really understand what they need from us.
"Really focusing on the fundamental aspect, everybody doing their one-eleventh, understanding what they need to do to execute the play when coach calls it. And then also helping us understand our weaknesses. They're actually going over that for us so that way we can continue to just get stronger and grow."
Much like the defense as a whole, Hughes needs a bounce-back 2017. After combining for 20 sacks in his first two years in Buffalo, he had just 11 under Ryan. At times, he was asked to drop into coverage, as were Marcell Dareus and former teammate Mario Williams – much to their chagrin.
Hughes said he'll hang onto the hybrid tag – "you never know what coach is going to ask" – but made it clear he's happy to be back at defensive end. He took to Twitter a couple days ago to tell his followers how good he feels, then dropped one of McDermott's favorite phrases when he wrote to "trust the process." When Ryan took over two years ago, the Bills never really did that. They struggled adapting to his scheme, and it never caught on. The team can't afford to have that happen again.
"A lot of us have already played in the 4-3 scheme, so we kind of understand some of the little nuances the coaches bring," Hughes said. "But really" McDermott is "just helping us understand his plays. He's helping us understand his schemes, what he wants from us, what he expects. He's not throwing too much at us. He doesn't want to complicate things, make anything too much more than it really is."
Make that two subtle shots at Ryan.
"He wants us to out there and play fast and play physical," Hughes continued about McDermott. "That's the two main focal points that they're bringing. ... Really just focus on your fundamentals and techniques, which any level of play, any type of ball, is what you need to have to fall back on come game time."