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Bucs’ Jordan Whitehead, Antoine Winfield Jr. are clicking. But are they healing?

The Bucs desperately need the safeties operating at peak efficiency Sunday evening.
Bucs safeties Jordan Whitehead (33) and Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) have excelled in tandem as regular starters for Tampa Bay this season. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)
Bucs safeties Jordan Whitehead (33) and Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) have excelled in tandem as regular starters for Tampa Bay this season. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco) [ BRIAN BLANCO | AP ]
Published Feb. 3, 2021

While the pandemic raged and the Bucs headquarters remain closed last summer, the duo cultivated a clairvoyance in OTAs — offseason tandem activities.

While Tom Brady was practicing routes with his new receivers in sweltering dawn workouts at Berkeley Prep, safeties Jordan Whitehead and Antoine Winfield Jr. were trying to find a common wavelength of their own in improvised practices.

“Actually when I first got down here, (Whitehead) was the first person I met and started working with,” Winfield said.

“We weren’t allowed to go to the facility yet, so we just had our own little workouts. ... So starting off early because of that connection right away, I feel like our experience together as we went through the season only progressed.”

Before you could say precocious, Winfield (rookie) and Whitehead (second season) had established themselves as the starters in the back end of Todd Bowles’ secondary. At the end of 16 games, they had teamed for five sacks, three interceptions, three forced fumbles and seven quarterback hits.

Winfield earned a spot on the Pro Football Writers of America all-rookie team. Whitehead had accounted for nine tackles for losses, most of any Bucs defensive back.

“The one thing about Jordan, he’ll throw his face in the fan,” coach Bruce Arians said. “He’s not afraid of mixing it up, and he has really improved in pass defense, especially his man coverage.”

Bucs safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) and Jordan Whitehead (33) celebrate after forcing a turnover against Carolina on Sept. 20 in Tampa.
Bucs safeties Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) and Jordan Whitehead (33) celebrate after forcing a turnover against Carolina on Sept. 20 in Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Associated Press ]

Now, a pairing that has debuted with a bang is banged up. Winfield is nursing an ankle injury that sidelined him for the NFC title game in Green Bay; Whitehead is recovering from a shoulder he hurt during one of his two forced fumbles against the Packers.

“It’s 100 percent go,” Winfield proclaimed Wednesday.

“Just getting better every day with my injury,” Whitehead said.

Meantime, a fan base exudes nervous optimism.

The Bucs have brandished depth on the back end, with second-year backup Mike Edwards (two interceptions) allowing completions on only half of the 12 passes targeted to a receiver on his watch. But nothing can compensate for mutual telepathy forged over a summer, followed by a season spanning nearly five months.

Hence the reason the health of Winfield and Whitehead looms as one of the critical storylines entering Sunday’s proceedings at Raymond James Stadium. No team amassed more passing yards than Kansas City (4,854), and only Houston (6.4) averaged more yards per play than the Chiefs (6.3). Their net yards per pass attempt (7.4) ranked third in the NFL.

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“(Travis) Kelce, (Tyreek) Hill, you name it, they’ve got playmakers all across the board,” Whitehead said.

“They’ve got a quarterback that’s going to extend plays and get the ball in those guys’ hands any way possible. You saw (Jan. 24) against the Bills, Tyreek Hill turned a 5-yard catch into (71 yards). You’ve got to stay focused, play fundamental football, tackle and really just do your job.”

Collectively, the secondary mostly has been meeting all those prerequisites during this improbable postseason odyssey. It has picked off five passes (three by cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting) in three playoff games, honoring its assignments in Bowles’ smorgasbord of blitz schemes.

“We know what to say to each other more and more,” Winfield said.

“We’ve been very opportunistic in the back end,” Bowles said. “They’re coming together and making plays at the right time. They smell blood and they go after it.”

Naturally, preserving that continuity as much as possible would buoy the Bucs’ chances Sunday night.

Next injury update arrives Thursday.

“The ankle’s feeling good and I’m gonna play the game,” Winfield said.

“Going through everything, feel good, feeling better,” said Whitehead. “Can’t ask to be in a better position right now.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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