Heading into yesterday's showdown between the Bills and Browns, much was made about Donte Whitner's Cleveland homecoming. And why not? It's a compelling story; young safety on a scrappy defense comes home to try to beat the team he rooted for growing up as a kid. Very newsworthy.
What was not newsworthy on Sunday, however, was Whitner's performance.
In perhaps his most invisible performance since assuming the starting strong safety role in Week 2 of his rookie season, Whitner recorded five tackles in Cleveland. Let me repeat that - five tackles. Granted, no Bills defender was particularly productive in the Cleveland blizzard that hampered the game; Whitner, however, failed to live up to high expectations playing in front of many members of his family.
The optimist in me is whispering in my ear that the weather played a large role in the defensive production of this game. A quick glance at the stats indicates that Whitner was actually Buffalo's second-leading tackler, and that no defender - Bill or Brown alike - had more than 6 tackles on the day. Why, then, should Whitner take flack for being one of the most productive defenders on this day?
My rebuttal to that line of thought (yes, I'm essentially talking to myself here) is that blizzards are safety weather. This is especially true of safeties that are supposed to be on the up and up - Bob Sanders, for example, always performs well in the harsh conditions at Gillette Stadium. With the Browns emphasizing the run and drawing the assignment of covering Kellen Winslow, Whitner probably should have been more productive than he was. A difference-maker, if you will. It didn't happen.
Three plays in particular stick out like sore thumbs in terms of Whitner's performance. On one, while on a run blitz, Whitner whiffed badly aiming for Jamal Lewis' ankles, and the missed tackle resulted in a 6-yard gain for Lewis - a stat he made routine during yesterday's win. On the second, Whitner meets Lewis in the hole, grabs his waist, slides off, and Lewis picks up another big chunk of yardage. The third - and perhaps the most irritating of all - Whitner is playing man coverage on Winslow, and as a Derek Anderson pass errantly sails toward the tight end, Whitner cuts off the route perfectly, yet watches a possible interception sail by.
A Disturbing Trend
I love making excuses for Whitner. That's not sarcasm - I'm serious. I love the kid - I think he's a promising talent, a great leader, and a definite building block for this defense going forward. His work ethic is great, he's intelligent, and he's still a solid fit in Dick Jauron's preferred style of defense (though I still maintain he'd be a better fit at free safety). I still believe that he's one of the budding young stars on a budding young team.
But how long is too long to keep making excuses for Whitner? The former #8 overall pick has now made 29 consecutive starts for the Bills, yet has only accrued 2 interceptions, 6 passes defensed and one forced fumble in that time period. His 188 tackles have been steady production (6 and a half per game), but tackles aren't enough for a top-ten pick. When, if ever, will Whitner make the jump from "gamer" to "game-changer"?
Whitner's lack of production has been a hot topic amongst the community here for quite some time. So now, folks, I beg the question to you: are you as concerned with Whitner's performance yesterday as I am? Will Whitner ever be an elite safety? Is it pointless to speculate about Whitner's future at this point? Discuss.