There are many reasons why Buffalo's season has not gotten off to the start that the Bills had hoped, but production from the safety position is not one of them. Through six games it's been a game of musical chairs for the Bills at both strong and free safety, due to injury. But it's done little to alter the big spike in production from last season.
Heading into Week 7 Buffalo's defense has the second most interceptions in the league with 10. Only New Orleans and Philadelphia have more (11). They're also tied for first in the NFL in interception touchdowns with two. And Buffalo's safeties are primarily responsible for the team's takeaway numbers.
The safeties on the Bills roster have seven of the team's 10 interceptions thus far this season and almost every one of them on the squad has contributed to that statistic.
Rookie Jairus Byrd leads the team and is tied for third in the league with three interceptions thanks in large part to his two interception performance in the win over the Jets last week. Bryan Scott, Donte Whitner, George Wilson and John Wendling each have one apiece, though Wendling's came on a special teams play when Jets punter Steve Weatherford bobbled a field goal snap and tried to complete a pass.
Only Todd Johnson, who just signed with the club last week and has not been on the field, is without an INT.
When considering Buffalo's safeties are just a year removed from a season in which they recorded no interceptions, the dramatic jump in production is impressive even if they faced an inexperienced rookie quarterback last week in Mark Sanchez.
"All week in practice and in meetings we saw opportunities with the young quarterback," said Wilson of Sanchez. "He still is a rookie even though he's played pretty good up until our game. We saw some opportunities in some of their previous games where other opponents have let some interceptions go. So when we had those opportunities we wanted to make sure we made those plays and it gave us a chance late in the game."
Buffalo's safeties believe the difference this year is the significant increase in time that they're spending in the film room.
"Last year we'd just meet one day a week on our own and watch film," said Wilson. "This year we get together on Tuesday night, Wednesday night and Thursday night and watch the film of a different aspect of their offense. We're all out there on the same page. Nobody is out there playing cover three while the other side is playing cover two. We can play off of each other without any words being spoken. We have a great chemistry in our secondary."
"Every night we're all calling some type of meeting at Donte's house or here at the facility and we're watching extra film so we've been putting in extra time," said Byrd.
As a result Buffalo's safeties are making plays that they weren't making last season.
"Their hard work is really paying off," said defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. "We give them as much of a game plan as we possibly can on Wednesday and Thursday and they come back with some great questions. They even come back with some answers that we hadn't thought of. They have an idea of what's going on and put a lot of time in just as we do. The best laid plans don't always go as you want it to go, but they are putting a lot of time into it."
The safeties also give credit to their coaches. Knowing the safety tandem has been different on an almost weekly basis due to injury the players have been appreciative of the staff's ability to make subtle changes in the scheme to take advantage of the different skill sets each of them possess.
"They know the personnel that's in there and they simplify and let us play fast," said Byrd. "I think the credit goes to Coach Fewell and Coach Catavolos. They just make it so it's tailored to each person."
"They do a great job of preparing us for the variety of situations we get throughout the course of a game," said Wilson. "We've been working on a lot of our early opponents since OTAs. They set the tone in the meeting rooms."
Byrd has been a revelation with three interceptions in four starts. A ball hawk in college as a corner at Oregon with 17 interceptions in three seasons, the Bills felt he could transition to safety and help boost the takeaway numbers that simply weren't there a season ago.
"I think Byrd is one of those guys that we drafted because we thought he could track the ball well," said Fewell. "We thought he was a guy that if he could learn the defense and what was going on then he could be an element for our defense that could get us more turnovers."
But veterans like Scott and Whitner and reserves like Wilson and Wendling have also made plays.
"That just shows the type of preparation that guys take week in and week out in our room regardless of whether you're a starter or second team," said Wilson. "It's all about being professional and being ready when your number is called."
And though their takeaways did not result in victories in the early going this season they're hoping last Sunday's win represents a permanent change in that trend.
"We're finally getting out what we've put in," said Byrd. "We've lost some tough ones, but we're starting to see it paying off slowly but surely so hopefully we can build off this."