It's quietly been a career year for Donte Whitner.
The Bills' 2006 first-round draft pick out of Ohio State has often been criticized for missed opportunities in the past, but has excelled in Buffalo's new defensive scheme.
No game better illustrates that than his career-high 18-tackle performance in Sunday's loss to Pittsburgh.
Whitner, tied for fourth in the league with a team-leading 104 tackles (most among all NFL defensive backs), credited the change from former defensive coordinator Perry Fewell's Tampa 2 system to current coordinator George Edwards' 3-4.
"I'm an undersized safety, so the position I was playing in that Tampa 2 defense was really not fitted for a guy with my skill set or my size," the 5-foot-10, 208-pound strong safety said. "Instead of making a big fuss about it … I just did what the coaches needed me to do, and played different roles and different positions – mostly in the box – to allow other guys to play in the middle of the field. Now, (the 3-4 has) allowed me to do a lot more things."
Whitner said he's relishing the new system, which is similar to the one he played in with the Buckeyes and allows him to take on a variety of responsibilities.
"Covering tight ends, covering wide receivers, playing in the box, playing deep, blitzing ... my responsibilities in this defense are endless, and I enjoy it and I welcome it," he said. "It's fun. Hopefully we can continue to get wins, and continue to play well, and I'll take as much responsibility as I have to."
Whitner is just one tackle shy of his previous career high, which he set his rookie year. Despite having no interceptions this season, he is tied for third on the team with five passes defensed.
Although he notched double-digit tackles in the three games leading to the bye week, he said he hadn't completely adapted to the new system until after the open date.
"You always feel like you know the defense," he said. "But until you really get out in to live action and see how teams attack what we do, that's when (you) really start to feel comfortable."
If it really took that long for Whitner to get comfortable, inside linebacker Paul Posluszny would have a difficult time believing it.
"He's been playing really well all year long," Posluszny said. "This system is very similar to what he said he played in college, so he's had an idea – especially coverage-wise. Donte's a very bright player, so he was able to pick up things really fast, and he's been playing really well all year long."
Posluszny, second on the team – and tied for eighth in the league – with 96 tackles, agreed the new system has allowed Whitner to show his skills, but said the strong safety also has tremendous instincts.
"If you just look at the last couple games, he's really getting to the ball from the safety position," Posluszny said. "He had 18 tackles last week, so he's doing a good job of not only playing deep against the pass; but he's able to make quick decisions and come up and play against the run really well."
Free safety Jairus Byrd said Whitner is a student of the game, which is evident through his anticipation from the strong side.
"He's always around the ball, and I think it shows he knows where the ball is going (and) how to make plays," Byrd said. "I think the new system fits him. His knowledge of the game (has) just taken another step. This is what he played in college, and I think it shows. He's been able to make plays (and) go down in the box a lot, and you can tell by his production."
Whitner said his coverage skills have improved – though he'd like to grab a few interceptions before the year is over – but said he's glad he's played more consistently on a down-to-down basis.
"(When) you look for a good football player, you look for consistency," he said. "As many good plays in a row as you can put together … that's how you define a good football player."
The most-intriguing question remains who will win the tackle race between Whitner and Posluszny.
"I've got him for sure," Posluszny said. "I'll win."
Not if the team's current leading tackler keeps his current pace.
"I'm going to win the tackle battle," Whitner said. "I'm actually going to win the interception battle, too; so at the end of the year, I'm going to lead us in tackles and interceptions."