It was hardly a stellar year for the Buffalo Bills' defense, but cause for optimism exists in at least one area.
Safeties Donte Whitner and Ko Simpson were thrown into the fire at the start of the season and they rarely got burned.
"Coming in here, a lot of people didn't think two rookie safeties could get the job done," Simpson said. "But I think we've proven them wrong and we're going to continue to grow. If we stay together there's no telling how good we'll be."
Although the Bills wound up 18th in the 32-team NFL in total defense and 28th against the run, Whitner and Simpson helped the team finish No. 7 versus the pass.
Teams generally having success on the ground usually don't need to rely on the pass, yet opponents threw more than they ran against the Bills. The 32.1 pass attempts per game Buffalo faced was the 17th-highest average in the league.
There are risks in playing rookies at any position because they are prone to making mistakes. With inexperienced safeties, they are susceptible to biting on play-action fakes and getting beat on long passes. But Whitner and Simpson played with discipline in deep coverage.
The Bills allowed 39 pass plays of 20 or more yards, which tied for the seventh fewest in the NFL. The average distance of the 20-plus pass plays was 26.2 yards, which was the lowest average in the NFL. The Bills also allowed only seven pass plays of 30 yards or more and two completions of 40-plus yards.
Compare this to last season when the Bills yielded 48 pass plays of 20 or more yards, 15 of 30 yards or more and seven of 40 yards or better. This was with a pair of long-time NFL veterans (Lawyer Milloy and Troy Vincent) manning the safety spots.
The Bills permitted teams to complete 63.2 percent of their passes (tied for the fifth-highest in the NFL). But the opposition had to settle for a lot of short throws because of the Bills' sound coverage and much-improved pass rush.
"The coaches preached all the time, 'Don't give up the big play,' " said Simpson, who credited the play of cornerbacks Nate Clements and
Terrence McGee for taking pressure off the safeties. "In our defensive scheme we want to make teams throw the ball short and run up and tackle them."
"Ko and I know teams looked at us and thought they could trick us with play action," Whitner added. "But there are certain things you have to do to prepare for it. You just can't read the quarterback because he's going to lie to you all the time. You have to read through the tight end, through the guards and tackles and know what type of looks they are trying to give you. I thought we did well doing that."
The Bills would have preferred to bring Whitner and Simpson along slowly. But in today's NFL, there is little time to groom players. You've got to play them while you have them.
A disputed eighth overall pick in the draft, Whitner has justified the selection by finishing second on the Bills with 105 tackles. Simpson proved to be a fourth-round steal with 91 tackles (fifth on the team) to go with two interceptions.
Despite their lack of on-the-job experience going into the season, the Bills were confident Whitner and Simpson would learn quickly.
"As a staff, you're committed to your players," defensive backs coach George Catavolos said. "After a game or two they're not rookies anymore. They're learning on the run. It's a credit to them, and Perry [Fewell, Buffalo's defensive coordinator] has helped them with the scheme and the calls. They've been able to play well most of the time."
Whitner and Simpson haven't been flawless. They had their share of mistakes. But when you look at their overall body of work this season, the players exceeded expectations.
"I think it says a lot about us as players and it says the Bills knew what they were doing when they went into the 2006 NFL draft," said Whitner. "They knew what they wanted and knew what they needed. Ko and I have only scratched the surface. We still have a lot of learning to do, so this year was only a glimpse of what's going to be in the future."