ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) -Now that he's had an entire offseason to reflect, Donte Whitner gets a big kick out of reviewing game tape from his rookie year.
``Man, I was young,'' Buffalo's second-year strong safety said.
A little over a month since turning 22, Whitner still isn't old by NFL standards - or any others, really. But the year of experience, after being thrust into a starting role immediately, makes the 2006 first-round draft pick feel like a tested veteran.
``It seems so long ago, but it wasn't,'' Whitner said. ``But my knowledge of the game and the defense at that point and this point is like night and day.''
It's showing.
As the Bills prepare to open the season against Denver on Sunday, Whitner has been among the most consistent performers this preseason on a young and revamped defense.
Whitner had a team-leading five tackles in a 13-10 loss to Atlanta on Aug. 17. That included a clutch goal-line play stuffing Jason Snelling for a 2-yard loss on fourth down to end the Falcons' opening drive.
Whitner has also been a force defending passes, making an eye-opening interception during a training camp session. Whitner broke on the ball the minute J.P. Losman released it, and made a headfirst diving catch over the middle and in front of a surprised receiver.
The dual role defending the run and pass is something Whitner excelled in at Ohio State. The Bills limited Whitner to mostly defending the run last season to avoid burdening him with too many responsibilities.
That's changing. The Bills have experimented with Whitner as a third cornerback in certain situations to help fill in for the loss of star Nate Clements to free agency.
``That interception was phenomenal,'' defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said, recalling Whitner's play in camp. ``He sees more now. Not that he didn't see it a year ago. But he sees it and it registers now. And he's able to use his cat quickness to go for things more than he did a year ago.''
Whitner's rookie season was very much a work in progress. He missed the first week of training camp because of contract negotiations, and then missed a few more days to attend the birth of his son.
The plan was to ease him into a starting role, but that changed when veteran Matt Bowen broke his right leg in the preseason opener, leaving the Bills with no choice but to go with Whitner.
When veteran free safety Troy Vincent was hurt in the season opener, Whitner was joined by Ko Simpson to form the league's only regular all-rookie safety tandem.
The pair held up despite its inexperience. Simpson finished with 92 tackles, two interceptions, a sack and forced fumble. Whitner's production was even better, finishing second on the team with 107 tackles and an interception.
So much for the critics who suggested the Bills made a reach when they took Whitner with the No. 8 pick.
The criticism bothered Whitner last year, but he's moved past it, confident he's proven himself.
Taking on more of a leadership role, Whitner's eager to quiet this year's doubters, who question whether a young Bills defense can overcome losing three veteran starters: Clements and linebackers Takeo Spikes and London Fletcher.
``I was watching a lot of NFL Network, and they were giving all these other teams hype,'' Whitner said. ``And I'm looking at these players and thinking, `Our players are just as good or better.' ... I'm not going to say a number, but I think we'll win a good share of football games.''
Fewell is impressed with Whitner's approach, recalling Whitner telling him he wanted to be the one to step up as a leader.
``He's taken that upon himself. And I thought that was pretty mature for a young man just entering his second year to say that,'' Fewell said. ``I sense that he is ready to have a breakout season.''

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