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Vincent provides safety in numbers

When Troy Vincent made the commitment to move from cornerback to free safety, he consulted a number of players who had done the same thing.

He reached out to Ronnie Lott, Rod Woodson and Aeneas Williams, three former All-Pro corners who became Pro Bowl safeties. Vincent also talked to current All-Pro safety and former Philadelphia Eagles teammate Brian Dawkins and Emmitt Thomas, an All-Pro cornerback and safety in the 1960s and '70s.

"I still talk to them all the time," Vincent said. "This is on-the-job training for me. There are some things where my instincts will take over at times, but I'm a student of the game. There is so much I can learn from guys who have done this."

It looks like Vincent has been a quick study.

Playing free safety like he was born to do it, he intercepted two passes and helped break up a few more throws during the Buffalo Bills' 22-7 season-opening win over the Houston Texans.

Vincent spent most of his 14 NFL seasons at cornerback, where he earned five straight Pro Bowl berths from 2000-'04 while playing for the Eagles. His move to free safety didn't occur until last season after returning from a knee injury the final four games.

He had an immediate impact, recording a sack, an interception and a fumble recovery in his first start against Cleveland and capped his four-game apprenticeship with 12 tackles against Pittsburgh.

But Vincent felt he needed to learn more about free safety. It's different than playing cornerback, where you know who you're covering on every pass play. A free safety is usually providing help and acting as the last line of defense.

"It's a change, but a good change," he said. "I'm trying to learn everything there is to know about playing free safety because I'm committed to being the best free safety that I can be and bring the most value to this football team."

His value to the Bills was considerable Sunday. He reverted back to his days as a cornerback on his first interception, breaking quickly on a pass from Texans quarterback David Carr and making a diving catch in front of wide receiver Andre Johnson.

On the second interception, Vincent was a true center fielder as he came off another receiver and showed great range and recovery speed to take away what would have been a long touchdown catch by Johnson.

Vincent had a shot at a third interception late in the game, but cornerback Nate Clements went for the pick and unintentionally knocked the ball out of Vincent's clutches.

"I don't want to judge my performance off of interceptions," Vincent said. "I made plays on the ball, but obviously I didn't do that by myself. The pressure we got up front, being in the right place at the right time were keys, and then coming up with the ball and just sealing the deal when the opportunity was there."

Clements said there is only one word to describe what it means for a cornerback to have a cagey veteran like Vincent watching your back.

"Freedom," Clements said. "I can take more chances and be comfortable and not worry about getting beat. He can still run and cover a lot of ground back there. On that interception on the long pass, I don't think David Carr saw him coming on the back side. He has to move it to get there, but he did."

If you think the Bills' cornerbacks love the security of having Vincent at safety, imagine how good the coaches feel.

"He's an intelligent player, a smart player," said Bills coach Mike Mularkey. "The transition to safety has been easy for him. He'd probably say different, but he's very comfortable back there, making the two plays that he did."

Playing free safety could add a few more years to the 34-year-old Vincent's career. But that thought hasn't entered his mind.

"I'm just going to take care of 2005," he said. "There's no reason I can't be the best free safety today. I don't think about tomorrow or extending my career. That's not why I'm in the league. I want to win a championship, and I want to bring the most value to this football team."

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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