Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Roaming time for Bills' Whitner

Improved pass rush will benefit Bills safety

By Allen Wilson

September 10, 2008

Donte Whitner looks at how Pro Bowl strong safeties like Bob Sanders of Indianapolis and Troy Polamalu of Pittsburgh are used to maximize their impact and wonders, “Why can’t I do the same thing?”

He’ll get his chance this season.

The new additions on the Buffalo Bills’ defense will mean a new, expanded role for Whitner.

With proven run-stuffing defensive tackle Marcus Stroud, versatile defensive tackle Spencer Johnson and solid veteran linebacker Kawika Mitchell strengthening the front seven, Whitner will have more freedom to improvise than he’s ever had before.

“I’m excited,” said Whitner, who had six tackles and a pass breakup during the Bills’ season-opening 34-10 rout of Seattle. “My packages have expanded as far as me blitzing and showing one thing and doing another. I’ll have an opportunity to roam back there, have opportunities for some interceptions and big hits and get guys lined up. I’m enjoying it.”

Entering his third season, Whitner is already established as one of the top strong safeties in the NFL. He has been consistently productive, topping 100 tackles in each of his first two years.

What he hasn’t been is a big-time playmaker in the mold of Sanders and Polamalu, both of whom have the latitude to freelance and wreak havoc all over the field.

Whitner has only two interceptions, six pass breakups and no sacks in his brief career. Those numbers are expected to increase in his new role, where he’ll be near the line of scrimmage on one play and in deep center field on the next.

“When we initially drafted Donte, I wanted him to understand the fundamentals and principles of the defense,” defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. “He’s been in this system for two years now, so as he grows I want to allow him to grow within our defensive system. He’s a very talented young man, so I can take advantage of his talents by moving him into multiple positions and doing different things that enhance our ability to be aggressive.”

The Bills wanted to turn Whitner into an all-purpose defensive threat last season. Fewell wanted to put Whitner in situations where he and free safety Ko Simpson would be interchangeable.

But those plans changed when Simpson was lost for the season with a broken ankle in the opener. Injuries also diminished depth at cornerback, linebacker and on the defensive line.

Because of the Bills’ struggles in stopping the run, Whitner had to play a lot at the line of scrimmage like an extra linebacker. He even lined up as the nickel cornerback on some passing downs.

“Because of all the injuries, we just didn’t have the pieces in place to do the things we wanted to do,” Whitner said. “I played in the box maybe more than I would have if we had all our guys on defense.

“I started at nickel back last year. There are not too many strong safeties you can put at nickel back. We were very limited in what we could do because we didn’t have the bodies.”

Now that the defense is healthy and upgraded with talented reinforcements, the Bills are ready to unleash Whitner by putting him into a position to make the kind of game-changing plays for which Sanders and Polamalu are known.

“I definitely think he has all the attributes to do what Sanders and Polamalu do,” Fewell said. “As I study those guys and different teams throughout the season I view him in that light. If you’re asking do I see Donte’s game expanding to that type of capability, yes, definitely.”

Whitner, who said his expanded responsibilities are similar to what he did at Ohio State, believes he and the rest of the secondary will benefit from the Bills’ improved front seven.

Stroud’s presence up front should make defensive ends Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay more dangerous rushing off the edge. Fewell’s playbook also includes myriad packages designed to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks from all angles.

“If we have tremendous pressure, the quarterback can’t throw the football accurately with all those guys in his face,” Whitner said. “It’s only a certain number of guys who can do that consistently. Other guys are going to have overthrows, low throws, tipped balls, things that come from having a good front seven.

“We’re looking forward to those guys applying a lot of pressure, which gives us an opportunity. Now we don’t have to be perfect. You can maybe take a chance here and there to get a ball.”

Whitner is looking to have the kind of season that leads to Pro Bowl recognition for him and some of his defensive teammates.

In the AFC, Sanders and Polamalu owned the strong safety spots in Hawaii for years.

But if Whitner has the kind of impact season the Bills expect, he might just break up that monopoly.

“The coaches are doing a good job of putting me in position to make things happen,” he said. “My job is to make the most of those opportunities.”

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