There's no question that the Buffalo's defense has some areas of their game that need fixing, and a lot of it has been due to injury which has compromised continuity defensively. But one position that has been instrumental in helping Perry Fewell's unit through some rough patches this season has been safety.
Last week was no different. With Jerametrius Butler, the latest nickel corner to succumb to injury, Fewell again had to make an adjustment defensively with his nickel package. Two weeks earlier he had lost nickel corner Kiwaukee Thomas for the season to a groin injury. With Butler suffering from a calf injury, Fewell turned to his most versatile secondary player for answers.
Against the Jaguars, Fewell put Donte Whitner in the slot and brought Jim Leonhard on the field at strong safety in Buffalo's nickel package. Whitner played admirably holding Jacksonville slot receiver Dennis Northcutt to three catches for 36 yards in the times he had him as a coverage assignment. His best performance came on a 3rd-and-5 at the Buffalo 30. Whitner held Northcutt to a two-yard reception, forcing the Jaguars to settle for a field goal.
"I thought Donte did a nice job at the nickel position for really his first game in there. That's not an easy spot to play," said head coach Dick Jauron. "Jimmy made some plays too when he was in there."
And if the switch wasn't challenging enough Whitner did it with only two days of practice under his belt.
"I didn't practice on Wednesday," said Whitner who was recovering from a blow to the head suffered the previous week. "I took half the reps on Thursday and a full day on Friday, so it was just a day and a half worth of practice at the nickel. With a little more time and practice and a lot more film study on what the slot receivers are doing it will be alright."
For Leonhard, who was unable to bump Wilson from the starting free safety position after coming back from a calf injury, he was glad his defensive coordinator found a way to use him on the field.
"It's nice. We realize the situation," said Leonhard. "Our safeties are playing well right now so it's great to get back out on the field in whatever capacity. I think it is good to see that Perry is trying to work us all back in there."
Fewell also had another package in which he used three safeties last Sunday. He put it into action on probable run down situations. Whitner was lined up on the left side of the defensive formation, Bryan Scott subbed in and lined up on the right side and George Wilson was in the middle of the field.
It was only utilized a couple of times last Sunday, but Scott made the most of his opportunity. On a 2nd-and-5 from the Bills 32-yard line Scott held Maurice Jones-Drew to a three-yard gain forcing a third down situation in the first quarter.
Early in the second quarter Scott made his best play of the day. On 3rd-and-1 at the Bills eight-yard line Scott knifed into the Jaguars backfield from the right side of Buffalo's formation and dropped Jones-Drew for a seven-yard loss and Jacksonville had to settle for a field goal.
"In short yardage when they had some bigger personnel on the field we brought Bryan in at the safety spot and it paid off," said Jauron. "Bryan made a couple of big plays."
At 230 pounds Scott acts almost like a fourth linebacker, but has the ability to cover in the event that the opponent chooses to check to a pass in a probable run down situation.
"We all kind of have a little different skill set as safeties and Bryan fits in that situation," said Leonhard. "He's our biggest safety. He's like a fourth linebacker, but he can run. He comes in and he presents a totally different package for us."
Buffalo used still another subpackage with an extra linebacker on the field with Whitner and Wilson at the safeties and just Terrence McGee at cornerback. With all the injuries Fewell has been forced to get more creative that usual with his subpackage lineups, and some of them have been very effective.
"It's a rotation and it's different," said Whitner of their varied subpackages. "It's a way to get everybody in the game and everybody involved and give guys roles and they just play their roles and try to perfect them."
And the main reason Fewell has the flexibility to be as creative as he has been is due to the depth of talent he has at safety.
"We have guys that are capable of doing a lot of things," said Leonhard. "There are not too many safeties like Donte who can line up and play man-to-man at nickel. I think it could be a great package for us going forward."