The pass defense of the Buffalo Bills last season was as stellar as it has ever been in franchise history. The Bills ranked second in the NFL in passing yards allowed, completion percentage against, and the most noticeable statistic, second in interceptions with 28. Of the 28 picks, free safety Jairus Byrd led the way with nine, and strong safety George Wilson was second on the squad with four.
Leaving the familiar Tampa-2 defense in favor of the 3-4 scheme, the safeties are going to remain big play catalysts in the secondary. While the team boasts a solid group of corners, including Terrence McGee, Drayton Florence, and Leodis McKelvin, among others, the safeties have been some of the biggest impediments to the Bills offense thus far in training camp.
Donte Whitner, a standout out early on in summer practice, said that the scheme change could actually help the Bills secondary make even more plays on the football in 2010. Unlike the Tampa-2, the safeties in the 3-4 defense are virtually interchangeable, which lends the matchup advantage to the defense by allowing the safeties to put themselves in a position to be impact players.
"In certain coverages, there are certain routes that teams have to run against those coverages. You can tend to look for those things, and some of the defensive plays, you can jump some of those routes," said Whitner, who had a pass break up Thursday night against Indianapolis along with three tackles. "That's why I'm excited. I'm excited to see what happens with this new defense, it's going to be a good thing."
The entire defense has had a strong showing to this point in camp, and the work of the safety contingent has strong hand in it. Over the two practices on August 6 for instance, Whitner, Byrd, and Bryan Scott accounted for six takeaways alone against the first-team offense.
Byrd, who was named to the Pro Bowl as a rookie after last season's breakthrough performance, would not mind putting up similar individual numbers this season if possible, but his main focus is getting healthy following a minor procedure on his groin earlier this week, which is not a football-related injury. There's a good chance he'll return in time for the regular season opener.
As much attention as Byrd's exploits received last season, and as much as he wants to duplicate those numbers, his main objective is helping the Bills win football games.
"People probably put pressure on me, but I actually like it that way because it's going to help me raise my game and to keep a standard that I set for myself," Byrd said. "Of course, I want to get as many interceptions as I possibly can, but as long as we're winning games, getting to the playoffs, doing the things we need to be doing and winning games, I can care less."
Another breakout performer in the secondary last year was Wilson, whose four interceptions were a career-high. He has steadily improved over his past four seasons with the Bills, working his way from a wide receiver to special teams captain, and finally into a starting role last year when Whitner was injured. Many predicted Wilson to supplant the former first-round pick when camp began July 28, but both have coexisted well with Wilson most recently stepping in for the sidelined Byrd to start at free safety Thursday night.
While practicing frequently in pads is a new addition to training camp from recent years, Wilson said that the players have all been receptive to Chan Gailey's coaching methods, and the physicality that has been encouraged early on.
"We're definitely going to get a lot of work in pads because Coach Gailey is trying to change the culture around here, change the mindset and attitudes and the way we prepare for games, our approach to each and every game, and he's trying to set the tone from day one," Wilson said. "It's a different change-up from what we've had but hey, the past 10-12 years for this organization haven't been working so hey, let's give this a try."
The potential for the Bills secondary, and the defense as a whole, remains to be seen as the team enters the 2010 NFL season. With a new head coach in Gailey, a new defensive coordinator in George Edwards, and a new defensive scheme, time will only tell if the Bills can effectively shut down the pass again this season. Based on the majority of training camp practices thus far, the secondary has been up to the task, disrupting their share of drives with interceptions, forced fumbles, and fumble recoveries. Defensive leaders like Whitner, who have seen the ups and downs of the franchise in recent years, are extremely optimistic entering the new season.
"We expect to (be successful) every time we step on the football field, whether it's a football game or a practice. That's not saying bad about our offense or any offense, but we feel like we're one of the top secondaries and we're one of the up-and-coming defenses in the National Football League, and that's how we want to come out each and every night," Whitner said. "Once you put practices like that together in a row, then you become a good football team. And that's what we have to do, put them in a row and then we'll feel good about ourselves."