In his first season as the Buffalo Bills' starting strong safety, Donte Whitner did little to disappoint. Playing in 15 games (starting 14 of them), Whitner finished second on the team in tackles with 105. He was steady, made few mental errors and did not get beat often in pass coverage. He played a very stellar rookie season.
What Whitner made up for in steadiness, however, he lacked in playmaking ability. Brought in as possibly the most controversial first-round pick of his draft class, Whitner struggled to make plays his rookie season. He intercepted just one pass (in week one against New England) and otherwise was invisible. Fellow rookie Ko Simpson made more plays from the safety position than Whitner did.
Entering his first full off-season, Whitner has to know that there will be more pressure on him to make plays in 2007. As the eighth overall pick in any draft, you're expected to be a difference-maker at whatever position you play. Whitner's not there yet, but certainly has the ability to do so.
In Whitner's Defense
Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell's scheme calls for the safeties to play well both in coverage as well as against the run. Whitner is blessed with the capability of doing both, and doing both well. Whitner is so good in run support, in fact, that due to Buffalo's awful run defense last season, Whitner spent the majority of his time playing close to the line of scrimmage.
In this run-support role, Whitner was taken out of his element for much of the season. In order to make more plays in the secondary, especially from an interception standpoint, Buffalo needs to improve its run defense in order to let Whitner drop back in coverage a bit more often. We believe we have done that - we are younger, faster and bigger at linebacker and we have a defensive line rotation that goes 8, 9 and maybe even 10 deep. If our depth up front does pan out, we'll see Whitner playing deep more often.
Don't misunderstand - even if Buffalo improves its run defense mightily, Whitner will still see time in the box. He will be used in run support often, and will be used as a blitzer more as well. But if the front seven can hold its own against the run more often, Whitner will be in better position to make plays in '07.
Sanders is the Blueprint
One of the more brilliant Cover 2 safeties in the league, Indianapolis' Bob Sanders is the prime example of how the Bills should utilize Whitner. The two players are similar in stature (Whitner stands 5'11", 205; Sanders is 5'8", 206). Sanders plays free safety for the Colts, while Whitner is the strong safety in Buffalo. Their responsibilities are a bit different, but the way these players are utilized shouldn't be.
Sanders specializes in big plays and bone-crunching hits. He is a terror in run support, and is used as a blitzer more than occasionally. When he is out of the Colts' lineup (which is surprisingly often), the Colts' defense isn't close to the same.
There are two main differences between Whitner and Sanders, and neither of them is talent. The first is the scheme. The Colts, who have been using the Cover 2 scheme since Tony Dungy's arrival and are much more comfortable with it, are better able to put Sanders in situations where he can make plays. As Buffalo continues to develop its defensive scheme in Year Two of the Dick Jauron regime, the coaches will be better able to put its best defenders in position to make plays.
The second main difference is experience. Sanders has played enough professional football to better know the nuances of the position. He knows what he can get away with, and he takes better angles when trying to make tackles. Whitner has a lot to learn in this department - too often last year, he would meet a running back in the backfield at a bad angle and miss the tackle. Those are big plays that he needs to learn to make next season. With more experience, those plays should come.
Buffalo will be looking to improve as a unit on the defensive side of the football next season. With a new scheme being implemented last year, the team spent most of its time trying not to screw up rather than being aggressive. That will (hopefully) change next season. The coaching staff will take more chances with stunts and blitzes, and will better be able to put its playmakers in position to change ballgames. Year Two will see Donte Whitner become a much more integral defensive playmaker for a young, improving defense.