During the first half of the season, the Bills defense couldn't come up with a takeaway, even if the team had paid someone for it.
But over the last five games, the defense has collected eight interceptions to go with five fumble recoveries. The turnaround could not have come at a better time.
Buffalo's opponent Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the New England Patriots, turned the ball over just nine times in the first 14 games this season and are easily on pace to break the NFL record of 13, set by the Dolphins and Giants in 2008.
Quarterback Tom Brady hasn't thrown an interception in more than two months, a streak of 292 passes, 16 shy of a record held by Bernie Kosar. The Patriots have played six consecutive games without coughing up the football, an NFL record, and they've won all six of those games.
"He's a machine back there," Bills linebacker Chris Kelsay said of Brady. "They have all the weapons. Tom is the leader and he obviously has been operating at a high level for a long time. He's the key to their offense and somehow, someway we've got to get pressure on him, have to fluster him and take him out of his game."
Even that may not be enough.
Research by a league analyst showed that sacking Brady doesn't mean much. Since 2003, he's 19-4 when being sacked three or more times. Brett Favre is 11-11, Peyton Manning 6-5 and Drew Brees 5-14.
In New England's 38-30 win over the Bills in Week 3, Brady went 21 of 27 for 252 yards, three TDs and no interceptions.
"We feel like we're a completely different team," SS Donte Whitner said. "The thing that's going to be big is for our offense to control the ball ... and our defense will need to make key stops on third down, get a few turnovers and pressure Brady. I believe we can come out with a win in this game."
--Buffalo's defense, learning to play the 3-4 scheme with a lot of old 4-3 mixed in, has made big strides the last half of the season.
But any progress achieved could have minimal effect in 2011 if the team adds several new starters as expected and it creates a hole by failing to retain free-agent strong safety Donte Whitner.
Whitner's five-year contract is up and he hasn't been bashful about expressing pessimism concerning ongoing negotiations. The Bills would like to keep Whitner and are believed to be offering him a deal that would average about $5 million a season. But he'd like to be paid like a top-five defensive back -- about $7 million a season.
"Things are not going the way I want them to go or getting it done," Whitner said recently. "It might come to me actually hitting the free-agent market because we're far off. We're far off in dollars, we're far off in everything, so that's what it's going to be."
Whitner's agent is Tom Condon who continues to talk with Buffalo's front-office team.
Whitner, Buffalo's first-round pick in 2006 and the eighth overall pick that season, had a sixth year of the deal voided because he achieved a playing time threshold, earning him free agency a year ahead of schedule.
But that depends on if the NFL and players union can agree upon a new collective bargaining agreement before March.
The Bills haven't had a winning season during Whitner's tenure and take a 4-10 record into Sunday's home game against New England. But he's been a starter since his rookie campaign and a respected locker-room leader.
In addition, he's probably playing the best football of his career since the team's new coaching staff switched from a 4-3 (with Tampa 2 coverage) to a 3-4 scheme (the team also plays a lot of four-man front still). The 3-4 has allowed Whitner to make more plays. He's second on the team in tackles with 123 to go with one interception, six passes defended, one sack, one forced fumble and one recovery.
The direction the Bills are taking under coach Chan Gailey and the role he's playing in it is a big reason Whitner wants to remain a Bill. Buffalo is also close to his hometown of Cleveland and he's become a big part of the community.
| "The coaching staff allows me to be in (situations) based on the scheme that we play here now, not actually doing things that don't suit my skills," Whitner said. "My coaching staff, they have voiced that they want me here, I want to be here, so we'll see how it goes."
It can be argued Whitner doesn't have the leverage (i.e. statistics) other recent highly paid safeties had when they signed new deals.
Antrel Rolle parlayed 12 career interceptions, four returned for touchdowns, in five seasons with Arizona into a five-year, $37 million deal with the New York Giants; Adrian Wilson had 18 interceptions, two for touchdowns, and a whopping 18.5 sacks when he re-upped with the Cardinals for $36.5 million for five years; and All-Pro Troy Polamalu, who had 10 interceptions and seven sacks at the time, was retained by Pittsburgh three years ago to the tune of $30 million over four years with $17 million guaranteed.
Whitner has just five career interceptions and 2.0 sacks. But he's also just 25 years old and entering his prime.
"If it (contract talks) continues to go the same way, then obviously I'm going to have to hit the market and see my true value and see how other teams view me and how they value me," Whitner said.
Whitner was optimistic a deal could be struck before the season ended but developments took a 180-degree turn last week, he said.
"I obviously have voiced that I do want to stay here," he said. "They do know that. I do think there is a lot of promise around here. We are moving in the right direction, but I only can do what I can do. I only can control what I can control. If the CBA goes through ... I'm an unrestricted free agent. So, that's one thing I can control.
"I don't think there's a drop-dead date, but I know ... once the season is over, I don't know the guidelines, but I know you can start to check your value and see who's in it with you and who wants you and who doesn't. So, I think that comes shortly after the season is over. So, we'll see."
Buffalo Desperate For A Win
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