"We're going to make the playoffs. I'm not backing down from that guarantee. I feel even stronger about it now than when I made it."
Those are the words of Bills strong safety Donte Whitner, referring to his early offseason guarantee heard round the world: the Bills make the playoffs in 2008. If it is to be so, as Whitner certainly thinks it is, Buffalo's defense will have to show undeniable improvement since last season. Whitner's reenergized secondary should spearhead that improvement.
The Bills secondary was torched for more than 300 yards 5 times last season, including the week 11 embarrassment against the Patriots, in which Tom Brady effortlessly threw for 373 yards and 5 touchdowns. Two other passers were close to the 300 mark; Chad Pennington threw for 290 in a close Week 4 Bills win, and David Garrard put up 296 in a runaway win for the Jaguars.
Quarterbacks like Brady had an easy time putting up gaudy numbers on the Bills because they were able to dissect the vanilla base cover-2 schemes that are the backbone of Perry Fewell's defense. Fewell can't be blamed for keeping it simple, as the Bills had to field the most able-bodied defenders they could from the most injured team in the league. With the return of regular personnel, the development of last year's defensive backs, as well as some rookie additions, Fewell will be able to get a little more creative in order to get pressure create more turnovers and allow fewer yards.
The Bills have a plethora of young, talented cornerbacks that all figure to see time this season. Terrence McGee, previously of kick-returning fame, was thrust into the number one cornerback role following last off-season's departure of the most overpaid man in football, Nate Clements. McGee was impressive, posting 4 interceptions along with 77 total tackles in 15 games. The biggest question this time last year was who the starter alongside McGee would be. It turned out to be preseason standout Jabari Greer, who held his own against some of the league's best receivers, but also was a fine example of the Bills' susceptibility to the deep ball when he proclaimed, after giving up a long TD in week 3 from Brady to Randy Moss, "As we say in high school, I got Mossed". Greer is listed as the second starting corner again this season.
With the 11th pick in the draft, the Bills selected the lightning fast Leodis McKelvin, a cornerback from Troy University. McKelvin is an excellent physical specimen, but has shown he needs to work on his coverage skills and his hands before he gets significant playing time this season. Chances are he will be utilized early and often in kick and punt returns, as he showed an uncanny ability to return kicks in the preseason. In a somewhat surprising turn of events, Ashton Youboty recently earned the nickel corner position over recent signee William James, who was subsequently cut. Youboty has missed a lot of time since being drafted out of Ohio State in the 3rd round of the 2006 draft, but proved he had a nose for the ball and an ability to tackle this preseason. The aptly-named 2008 4th round pick Reggie Corner also made the team and will see duty primarily on special teams.
Returning to his starting free safety position from injury is 2006 draft steal Ko Simpson. Simpson, drafted with the 105th pick in 2006, was thrust into the starting role week 1 and started all 16 games, recording 77 tackles and 2 picks. Looking to build on a strong rookie campaign, Simpson's ankle was broken on the first tackle he made in the first game of the 2007 season, and he was placed on IR that week. He will try to return to form this season, after looking healthy and strong in the preseason. The Bills need him to do so sooner rather than later, as he will be isolated in the deep zone many times and will need to hold up against the deep ball. George Wilson, the former receiver, backs up Simpson and will see spot duty. He made a smooth transition into emergency safety last season, and returned an interception and a fumble each for a touchdown against Dallas and Miami, respectively.
Rounding out the secondary at strong safety is the not-so-subtle Whitner. Steadily earning a reputation as one of the most athletic and hard-hitting safeties in the NFL, the 3rd year pro needs to put his money where his mouth is in order to make good on his guarantee. There is little doubt amongst fans and coaches alike that Whitner will only improve this season, despite the fact that he has recorded more than 100 total tackles in each of his 2 seasons, according to the Bills. It may not be long before receivers are afraid to roam in Whitner's zone; ask Cincinnati's Chad "Ocho Cinco" Johnson, who got acquainted with Whitner on a post route last season, and promptly found his way off the field on a stretcher. John Wendling and Bryan Scott both made the team as reserve safeties and will see action on special teams.
A funny thing happened when Whitner told the Sporting News of his aspirations for the Bills: the team jumped behind him. Even the soft spoken Dick Jauron supports his defensive leader's open mind. "I'm a big believer that you better believe you can win…You better believe it, or you have no chance". Much of the Bills' chances will rely on this secondary rallying to vastly improve upon last year, and from the look of it, they believe they can.