The Buffalo Bills face a curious problem at the safety position right now. Opening day starters Donte Whitner and Bryan Scott have each missed at least four starts this season, and while they've been down, rookie Jairus Byrd has established himself as one of the elite young players at his position. Now that Whitner and Scott are close returning to the lineup, the Bills have three legitimate starting safeties, but only two starting spots to occupy.
Luckily for the Bills, Bryan Scott is a multi-faceted weapon. He's also a team player and a genuinely good guy, which makes removing him from the "starting" lineup all the easier. Byrd is a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year and the team's best defensive playmaker by miles, so he's not going anywhere. Whitner won't sit, either, considering his versatility in coverage and the level of play he exhibited prior to his various injuries.
Even if Scott doesn't start - and if both Byrd and Whitner are healthy, he won't (not at safety, anyway) - you're going to see a lot of him. He might just be Buffalo's best run defender, and given the fact that the Bills sport the No. 32-ranked run defense in the NFL, Scott's return to the lineup may be of critical importance, even if he's not technically a starter.
Scott's presence makes a difference defending run
Scott has only played in part of three games this season. He got hurt mid-way through the Bills' Week 3 loss to undefeated New Orleans, meaning he's been available to Perry Fewell for roughly ten quarters this season. In those ten quarters, Buffalo surrendered 219 rushing yards to New England (the NFL's No. 16-ranked rush offense), Tampa Bay (No. 25, thanks to a lot of late-game passing) and New Orleans (No. 5). Since his departure from the lineup, the Bills have surrendered 1,170 rushing yards in 22 quarters. That stat jumps from 22 yards per quarter to 53 yards per quarter with Scott out of the lineup.
That's not to say that Scott is the key to Buffalo's run defense. The flood gates have certainly opened since he's been out of the lineup, but in all fairness to his teammates, they've faced four of the top five rushing offenses in the entire league (New York, Carolina, Miami and the second half of that New Orleans game) without him. That certainly won't help your statistical cause. (The Bills face the league's No. 2-ranked rushing offense this week in Tennessee, and the No. 6-ranked attack the following week in Jacksonville, by the way.)
But let's not pretend that Scott's absence wasn't a blow, either. He racked up 27 tackles in less than three games. Even with all the time he's missed, he's still third on the team in tackles at the safety position, behind fill-in George Wilson (54) and Byrd (32). Unlike Byrd and Wilson, Scott is technically sound, makes an impact in the box, and has the ability to make plays in the backfield consistently. You can't take that type of player off the field and not expect to see a decline in play.
As mentioned, Byrd will continue to start at free safety, and Whitner will probably still see the lion's share of his work at strong safety. Fewell has, however, found ways to incorporate three safeties into his defensive packages in years past, with Whitner playing a rover position or lining up in the slot. In those cases, Scott could line up at strong safety.
More likely, you'll see Byrd and Whitner take coverage responsibilities, allowing Scott to take the majority of his reps in the box - because let's face it, the run defense can use all the help it can get. Scott has been taking reps at linebacker for the past two weeks, and it's possible he could see time in that role as well, particularly if either starting outside linebacker, Chris Draft or Nic Harris (if Keith Ellison can't go), is injured or fails to live up to the task.
That versatility has been sorely missed - not just from Scott, mind you, but from Whitner as well. Byrd and Wilson have made more than their fair share of plays while Scott and Whitner sat out, but those two players are limited schematically. Byrd is strictly a free safety at this point, and Wilson is a severe liability defending the run. Whitner's versatility allows the Bills to play more matchup coverage in their defensive backfield and, more importantly, get better players in position to make plays against the run.
But as important as Whitner is - even against the run - it's Scott's return that could prove to be the most important to a potential Bills playoff run. Buffalo's chances are slim at best, but they become non-existent if they can't improve against the run, particularly with run-heavy teams coming up on the schedule. Scott isn't a dynamic enough player to turn the league's worst run defense into anything more than an average run defense. But if he can get Buffalo to average - and if the defense finally gets a little help from Buffalo's offense - anything can happen.