There is no hesitation in his voice, no thought to the contrary.
Jerry Hughes can only see the positives that await him, not the pitfalls that once plagued him.
Gone are the days of playing out of position in Rex Ryan’s 3-4 scheme. Now, Hughes feels like himself again playing defensive end.
He is “at home.” Finally.
With this head coach, playing within this defense, the Bills’ veteran pass rusher believes his best sack totals are ahead of him. And when asked if he thinks he can top his career-high of 10, which he set in 2013 and ’14, he offered a guarantee of sorts.
“Oh, probably more than that. Yes, I can certainly see it,” Hughes said, praising head man Sean McDermott for “doing a great job” of putting players in positions that best suit their individual strengths. “I really don’t have a number in mind. But, oh yeah (I can do 10). Absolutely. In a 4-3, I’m in the trenches. I feel a lot more at home. A lot more comfortable.”
Hughes and the rest of the defense put on a show Sunday in Charlotte, holding the Carolina Panthers to three field goals while sacking star quarterback Cam Newton six times — their highest output since November 2014 against the Jets (seven). But while that may have been the unit’s coming out party, the Bills defense has no choice but to do better.
They can’t afford not to. Not with this offense. Not with this schedule.
Outside of LeSean McCoy, there is no other dynamic option. At least not yet.
No other formidable threat has emerged, no other potent weapon to rely on in the face of an eight-man box and a subpar day from “Shady.”
Even McCoy, the Bills’ explosive but overworked running back, can see it. He watched from the sideline Sunday as his defense kept Newton off his game and the Panthers’ playmakers out of the end zone. Yet he and the offense failed to produce with the game on the line.
“It is frustrating, for sure,” said McCoy, who averaged 0.8 yards per rush (nine yards on 12 carries) in their 9-3 loss. “A close game, all you need is a touchdown. And there was definitely times we moved the ball, especially in the second half and didn’t get any points from it. That is also tough.
“And then also, your guys on the field, the defense playing hard, tired, on the field for long periods of time. That is also frustrating but the only thing you can do is get better. Watch the tape and learn from it, make the corrections and move on.”
Over the next two weeks, they'll face the Denver Broncos’ No. 1 rushing attack and the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons. And while the Bills boast the second-best overall defense (behind the Panthers) and the fifth-best run defense, they have issues aplenty on the offensive front.
McDermott insisted Wednesday that he has “enough speed” at the wide receiver position, but it’s clear, even to the untrained football eye, that this team sorely misses speedster Sammy Watkins. His absence has created a void that no receiver has yet to fill. The Bills desperately need a playmaker who can stretch the field and someone — anyone — to create some separation.
Meanwhile, the calls for quarterback Tyrod Taylor to be benched have already begun. And those murmurings from a frustrated fan base will only intensify if the offensive struggles continue.
That’s why, fair or not, the defense has no choice but to expect to shoulder the load.
And, so far, it’s a challenge the unit readily accepts.
“That’s fine,” veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said, noting that it’s oftentimes easier at first for defenses to adjust quickly to new schemes. “Cause there’s going to come a day where we can’t stop nothing. And we’re going to need them to put up 40 points, or whatever it may be. You don’t ever want that, but it’s going to happen in a long season. And that’s the time you need those guys to step up for us as well. That’s why it’s a team. We just want to get the job done, not matter how it gets done.”
Despite an impressive performance against the Panthers, the two defensive leaders surprisingly spoke about the plays they didn’t make and the ways in which they collectively failed to help the offense. Both Hughes (two sacks) and Alexander (nine tackles, one sack) highlighted the missed sack opportunities vs. Newton, the dropped interceptions and their inability to string together three-and-outs in order to flip the field position. “If we had stepped it up, maybe they would have had a better shot,” Alexander said.
Hughes needs only eight more sacks to match his career-high. But more importantly, he and the defense have 14 more games to prove what transpired versus Carolina wasn’t a fluke.
“We don’t mind being out there,” said Hughes, who registered 11 sacks over the past two seasons as an outside linebacker under Ryan. “We embrace that grind, we embrace that struggle. That was our way of proving it to ourselves, on the road, with everything stacked against us … Now, it’s: Can we push ourselves one step more to go out there, causing a turnover, taking the entire wind, the fans out of the stadium once we score on defense.”
This unit wants to be great.
And with this offense ... it’ll have plenty of time on the field to prove just how good it really is.