Much has been made this off-season about the departure of cornerback Nate Clements and its effects on Buffalo's situation in the defensive backfield. With seven training camp practices under their belts, it's becoming apparent how the Bills plan on utilizing their back defenders in the second season of the Cover-2 scheme: mixing and matching. The team appears to be headed in a direction that calls for multiple packages in which different personnel will be playing different positions; as is exemplified by this video courtesy BuffaloBills.com, one of the major developments has been Donte Whitner getting reps at nickel cornerback.
Here's a look at some of the early rotations that will continue to be experimented with during camp at both the safety and cornerback positions as well as the nickel and dime packages. There are also a few quotes from the above video and perhaps some reasoning behind these decisions (think playmaking):
It appears that instead of cramming Whitner in the box solely to help out in the run game this season, the Bills are actually going to expand his in-the-box role by sending him on blitzes and covering slot receivers. From the sounds of it, Whitner is looking forward to this opportunity:
Whitner may turn into this team's "jack-of-all-trades" defensive back, playing multiple positions and carrying several responsibilities; there's a reason for this - the team needs him to make plays. By giving him short zone coverage responsibilities and sending him after the quarterback on occasion, it's pretty apparent that the coaches are looking for a way to get more impact plays out of their second-year defensive cornerstone. If Whitner can get comfortable in this role, he could be very good.
Multiple Nickel Packages?
With Whitner getting more time in coverage on slot receivers, it's very likely that the team will have two nickel packages that they use - one for the pass, one for the run. This makes sense in a lot of ways - having Whitner as the nickel man gives the team a little more beef in the box on run fronts, and having Kiwaukee Thomas there with Whitner deep (instead of Jim Leonhard, who replaces Whitner when he moves up) gives them better pass coverage. Thomas had this to say on the subject:
That's all but a confirmation to me. Having the two nickel packages provides better matchup possibilities for the defensive backs and takes a little pressure off of the young guys to "do it all", so to speak.
The Corner Rotation
As camp has unfolded, the top three corner spots seem to have been virtually locked down - Terrence McGee and Jason Webster have been working mostly with the first unit and Kiwaukee Thomas is firmly entrenched as the nickel cornerback (does that make Whitner the "nickel safety"?). Where does that leave Ashton Youboty? My guess is that he'll appear in nickel and dime packages on a mix-and-match basis as well.
Say we have the "pass" nickel package in. Thomas is in the slot and Whitner's deep; my guess is that the team will rotate Youboty in on the outside with Webster to get him experience. In similar dime packages, we could see Greer playing up close with Whitner deep (Greer has more short-area burst than Youboty, potentially making him a better fit).
Now switch it. Whitner's covering the slot and Leonhard is deep; logic would tell you to throw a third corner on the field as the sixth DB. Is it Thomas or is it Youboty? The team has enough leverage and strength in their DBs, so why not throw the lanky Youboty out there as a coverage artist?
You see the point here - having such great depth and versatility in the defensive backfield opens up a wealth of possibilities in nickel and dime packages, and allows Buffalo's great coaching staff to tinker with their personnel to find the best matchups possible on game days. It's also a great way to get a lot of players some experience, rather than having a "set" starting lineup, a "set" nickel package, etc. It all starts with Whitner, though - it's clear that he is the guy the staff is leaning on to produce this season.