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Jerry Sullivan: Hughes a force for the Bills, and civic good

Sean McDermott has been a little busy over the past month or so, so he hasn't had much time to evaluate all the players around the NFL. But the Bills' first-year head coach can't imagine anyone playing better defense than Jerry Hughes has over the first quarter of the season.

"He's been phenomenal," McDermott said. "He's been coming off the ball. He's been doing the little things. It's easy to be a one-dimensional player and get numbers, but he has bought into the system, being one-eleventh of the defense. He plays the run extremely well."

Hughes has been a force at defensive end for the Bills, who are allowing the fewest points in the league. He's played at a Pro Bowl level. This might be the best he's played. Do you know who doesn't buy it? Jerry Hughes.

"Nah, this isn't the best I ever played," Hughes said Wednesday. "I'm still dealing with a nagging hamstring injury. I can certainly play better. Looking at the films, there's areas of my game that need to get better. I'm still working on that, tinkering and trying to get better, day by day."

Wow. If Hughes is compromised by a bad hamstring, opposing offenses must shudder at the thought of facing him when he becomes fully healthy. Hughes has been the best pass rusher on a Buffalo defense that had its way with Cam Newton and Matt Ryan, and has allowed only one passing touchdown all season.

Hughes has three sacks and seven quarterback hurries. He made the biggest play of the season in Atlanta, knocking the ball out of Ryan's hand to force a fumble (which might have been ruled a forward pass) that was scooped up by rookie corner Tre'Davious White and returned 52 yards for a touchdown.

The play gave the Bills the lead in the third quarter and they never trailed again. It was the first time the Falcons had trailed in the second half of a game since Dec. 4, including the playoffs. If not for that strip sack, the Bills might be 2-2, instead of looking to get to 4-1 at the bye with a win at Cincinnati this Sunday.

But Hughes is holding himself to a higher standard these days. There's still much to prove, both for himself and the team. Last May, he said he was entering his eighth NFL season "with a chip on my shoulder" after two largely discouraging years playing linebacker in Rex Ryan's 3-4 defense.

The chip is still up there.

"Yeah. You carry it every game," he said. "That's just the way you play football. Not only myself, but the 10 guys on the field with me playing defense. Our coaches have a tough task in front of us. They're showing us how we can be a playoff-caliber team, how we can be a top-ranked defense.

"The guys on my side of the ball, as well as the offense, certainly want to go out and prove it every Sunday. So I think we go out there with a little nastiness."

Nasty is nice for a pass-rushing defensive lineman. You need to play with an edge. Dumb is a different matter. Hughes was sometimes out of control in his first four seasons in Buffalo, ranking near the top of the league in roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties that hurt his team's chances.

He was a walking contradiction -- a hothead on the field, a bright, thoughtful and accommodating person off it. But Hughes has matured in recent years. He took an immediate liking to McDermott and has become a leader and mouthpiece for the coach's philosophy.

"It goes to the message our coaches were preaching during the whole offseason," Hughes said. "Being smart, being fast, being physical. Coach shows us the penalty sheets. When we come in Monday, we can see the nuance that goes into being a winning team. When you hear it more and more, it sticks with you."

It helps the young guys when veterans -- guys like Hughes, Eric Wood, Kyle Williams and Lorenzo Alexander -- buy in. Hughes, who is in the middle of a five-year, $45 million contract he signed after the 2014 season, felt he had something to prove and was eager to see where he ranked among the elite pass rushers in the NFL.

Hughes talks a lot about having fun, playing fast. He is clearly more comfortable in McDermott's 4-3 as an end than he was in Rex Ryan's 3-4 scheme, which had him standing up and dropping more into coverage.

"It was a 3-4," he said. "It was a lot different from what we're doing now. A 4-3 certainly suits me. It's what I played in college. I'm a defensive end, and I love having fun."

He said his resurgence has more to do with the fine play of the secondary than any maturity on his part. He can still be a volatile character, as he showed with his emotional opposition to Jim Kelly when Kelly made some disparaging remarks about the team's protest two weeks ago.

Those comments received more attention than Hughes's humanitarian work away from football. He has raised more than $50,000 for the victims of Hurricane Harvey in his native Houston and pledged an additional $5,000 toward the cause for each sack he records this season.

Hughes and his wife, Meghan, bought two buildings in downtown Providence, R.I., awhile back and donated them for use as battered women's shelters.

"A friend of mine in real estate said it would be great for the city," Hughes said. "I said, 'Absolutely, anything for the community, especially a cause like that'.  It's really an epidemic there. As men, you've got to be better to your women."

Fatherhood has a way of maturing a man. Hughes has a son, Jerry III, who will be 2 years old in February. Meghan is expecting a daughter soon.

"She's due in November," he said. "I can't wait to see her."

Check back in another month or so. Maybe then, Hughes will be ready to tell you this is the best year of his life.

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