ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Labeled a bust in Indianapolis, defensive end Jerry Hughes is blossoming in Buffalo.
With 10 sacks, Hughes has already doubled the total he had in his first three seasons with the Colts.
The 2010 first-round pick is making the most of his fresh start after he was acquired by the Bills in an April trade that sent Kelvin Sheppard to Indianapolis. And Hughes has carved out a niche on a defence hoping to add to its franchise record and NFL-best 56 sacks in Sunday’s season finale at New England.
“I feel tremendous,” Hughes said Tuesday. “To be able to get that opportunity here, I felt great. I feel a lot more relaxed and confident in myself.”
After getting off to a slow start while he adjusted to defensive co-ordinator Mike Pettine’s complex and aggressive approach, Hughes is closing with a flourish. He has eight sacks in his past eight games, including one of Buffalo’s season-best seven sacks during a 19-0 win over Miami last weekend.
It was part of a dominating performance in which the Bills (6-9) limited the Dolphins to 103 yards of offence and six first downs.
Hughes is thriving in a situational role that has him on the field for about half of the defensive snaps.
He credits part of his success to playing on a line that presents formidable pass-rushing threats in defensive end Mario Williams and tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus.
The opposing offensive line can’t stop all of them. And the pass-rush threat doesn’t end there, with the Bills occasionally blitzing off the edges with a safety or cornerback.
Add in Mario Williams’ 13 sacks and the 10 1/2 for Kyle Williams, and it marks only the second time Buffalo has had three players with at least 10 sacks. And the Bills are the first NFL team with three since the 2000 Saints.
“I felt like we’ve played our best ball as the season has worn down,” Hughes said. “I think that speaks volumes for the amount of talent that we have on our side of the ball. I know for me, my confidence is high. And I’m pretty sure for the guys with me.”
Drafted 31st overall out of TCU, Hughes spent most of his time at Indianapolis feeling like a square peg in a round hole.
At 6-foot-2 and 254 pounds, Hughes is undersized among NFL pass-rushers. And he struggled to learn how to play linebacker in the Colts’ 4-3 scheme during his first two seasons.
“Early on in my career, I felt like I might have gotten down on myself because I definitely wanted to go out there and play,” Hughes said.
His production improved last season. Hughes picked up four sacks in 16 games, including a career-best six starts, after the Colts made the switch to a 3-4 defence.
That still wasn’t enough to secure his future in Indianapolis.
Hughes became expendable after the Colts used a first-round pick to draft linebacker Bjoern Werner out of Florida State.
Hughes was traded the following week and recalls how he couldn’t get to Buffalo fast enough.
“I didn’t want to be that guy where I was coming in late and lagging behind,” Hughes said. “I took it as an opportunity for me to get out there. Someone’s going to let me play football, so I wanted to show them that I can play.”
He has made an impression on Bills coach Doug Marrone.
“Sometimes it’s just change, sometimes it’s schematic, sometimes it’s a cultural change, sometimes it’s just a change of scenery, but Jerry’s production has been outstanding,” Marrone said. “I think Jerry is excited about the job that he’s done. We as an organization are excited that he’s here.”
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