Just how good of a year is Jerry Hughes having for the Buffalo Bills?
By one measure, he’s applied more pressure to opposing quarterbacks than Chicago Bears superstar Khalil Mack.
The analytics website Pro Football Focus has credited Hughes with 25 total pressures this season, which ranks second in the NFL, one ahead of Mack’s 24 (Kansas City’s Dee Ford leads the league with 29).
“Actually finally being healthy for a change,” is how Hughes accounts for his production through the first five games. “The training staff here has done a fantastic job helping put my body back together piece by piece. I can go out there and be the player I know I can be.”
A nagging hamstring injury robbed Hughes of some of his explosiveness last year, so he set about developing a training regimen with the help of the Bills’ medical staff to isolate that muscle.
The results have been impossible to miss.
“My explosion, my flexibility, I’m still able to run fast and bend the corner, which is what I really wanted to get back to doing,” Hughes said. “It’s allowed me to play fast, like myself. I knew that I could do it, it was just a matter of being healthy.”
Opposing offenses have noticed, too, according to coach Sean McDermott.
“He's a player that carries great influence,” McDermott said. “There's times when he gets chipped, so they certainly respect what he does and try to account for him off the edge. He brings great energy to the table every day, every game. I've seen his game evolve into more than just off the edge, which is part of his development, which has been great.”
Hughes’ run defense goes unnoticed at times, but he’s been solid in that regard, too. He ranks 18th among edge defenders in run stop percentage, according to PFF. Those are defined as tackles that constitute a loss for the offense, based on the down and distance gained.
“It’s been a lot of fun, but we still have a long way to go as a defensive unit,” he said. “Especially for me, I still feel like I can play better. That’s why we come in and go to work. We understand what’s expected of us as a unit and what we can do. With that being said, we know that we still have a long way to go.”
For as much as his run defense has improved, it’s Hughes’ pass-rush ability that remains his calling card.
“He’s a guy with a high motor, very athletic, loves to use his skills and his technique of spin moves, up-and-unders and using his speed and sometimes bull-rushing," Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson told the Houston Chronicle of Hughes. "He’s a guy that, of course, we want to keep an eye on, but we know our O-line is up for the test and we’re looking forward for the challenge.”
The Texans’ offensive line is the weakest part of their offense. Watson has been sacked 18 times, and even more troublesome is the 53 hits he’s taken. It’s no surprise he’s been a limited practice participant this week because of a chest injury.
The Bills’ defense, meanwhile, has moved all the way up to No. 6 in the NFL in yardage allowed, at 330.8.
“Our secondary has been doing an awesome job,” Hughes said. Tremaine Edmunds “being the rookie that he is, he’s still back there communicating with the guys getting everybody lined up. That allows us up front to just pin our ears back and hunt.”
It also helps Hughes that he’s got an established pass rusher across from him. Trent Murphy has 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble in the first five games.
“Talk about the definition of ‘BSU’ — blowing stuff up,” Hughes said of Murphy. “He’s a smart, intelligent guy. He knows what the offense is doing, how they’re going to attack him. So for me, it’s great to have somebody like that. We can play fast and play off each other.”
Hughes returns to his hometown Sunday. He grew up in Sugar Land Texas, southwest of Houston. His high school, Stephen F. Austin, sits about 20 miles from NRG Stadium. Hughes was a first-team All-District 20-5A unanimous selection as a senior running back.
“It’ll be great to play with in front of family and friends,” he said.
They’ll leave impressed if he continues to play the way he has the first five weeks.