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After humbling 2021 debut, beleaguered Bucs secondary must dig deep

The unit was mostly dissected by Dak Prescott in last week’s season opener.
Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) attempts to bring down Cowboys wide receiver Cedrick Wilson (1) as Buccaneers linebacker Devin White (45) watches during the first half of last week's season opener at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs won, 31-29.
Bucs safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (31) attempts to bring down Cowboys wide receiver Cedrick Wilson (1) as Buccaneers linebacker Devin White (45) watches during the first half of last week's season opener at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs won, 31-29. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sep. 15
Updated Sep. 15

TAMPA — In hindsight, Antoine Winfield Jr. wishes he had gone a tad more conservative. Maybe something embossed on the shoulder, or etched on a pectoral.

Sometimes he wonders if he should’ve put off getting that celebratory tattoo altogether.

“Now thinking about it, I’m like, I wish I would’ve waited a little bit longer,” he said, “waited until the end of my career to get it so I don’t have that just lingering on me.”

Alas, the 22-year-old free safety succumbed to his own all-out blitz of zeal, youth and impulsiveness. Today, that elaborate ink rendering of the Lombardi Trophy — with a skull and crossbones in the center and a pair of praying hands at the bottom — is emblazoned on his right forearm, bearing all the subtlety of Oscar-night attire.

“Looking down, you can kind of be complacent sometimes looking at it like, ‘We already won the Super Bowl,’” Winfield acknowledged. “But it’s also something that motivates me, as well.”

These are days of humility and introspection for Winfield and the Bucs secondary, nursing an assortment of wounds from dislocated elbows to sprained pride in the wake of that 31-29, season-opening victory against the Cowboys.

Exploiting the perimeter at will, Dak Prescott dissected the unit for 403 yards, completing 72.4 percent of his passes in his first live game in 333 days.

Shoddy tackling (the secondary had five missed tackles according to Pro Football Reference) was complicit in the unit’s lapse, as were penalties (including four pass-interference or defensive holding flags). Of course, cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting’s grotesque elbow injury in the first half further hampered a group already struggling with depth issues.

By night’s end, its self-moniker (“Grave Diggers”) seemed passe at best and a parody at worst.

“We made a few mistakes, and like I said, it’s nothing that we can’t fix,” Winfield said Wednesday. “(The film review) wasn’t really brutal, it was more just a learning process.”

To be sure, the group’s still learning — about the nuances of its craft, consistency and perhaps even complacency. If safety Jordan Whitehead returns from a hamstring injury as expected Sunday against the Falcons, no projected secondary starter in that game will be older than 24.

Winfield said the group’s communication was “a little off” and added that tackling was a focal point at Wednesday’s padded practice. Moreover, he and coach Bruce Arians continue to offer votes of confidence for cornerback Jamel Dean, who particularly struggled Thursday against Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper.

“Nothing that (Dean) can’t fix real fast,” Arians said.

A quick fix is essential. The Falcons, reeling from a 32-6, season-opening loss to the Eagles, still possess one of the league’s elite receivers in Calvin Ridley, as well as former Gators tight end Kyle Pitts, arguably the most coveted athlete in the 2021 NFL draft.

“They’ve got a bunch of ‘em,” Arians said. “You’ve got Ridley, Pitts, (Russell) Gage, (tailback) Cordarrelle Patterson — they’ve got weapons. A lot of teams didn’t look good in the first week, for whatever reason. But don’t put any stock in that.”

A Whitehead return would fortify the safety spot, enabling secondary hybrid Ross Cockrell to complement Dean and Carlton Davis at corner. Veteran Pierre Desir, who had three interceptions in nine games with the Jets last season, recently was added to the practice squad and possibly could add depth in a pinch.

“We’ll see how fast he can keep up,” Arians said. “The terminology is a little bit similar to what he’s had. He’s played a ton of corner in the league.”

Personnel is one thing, pride is another.

One week into 2021, the “Grave Diggers” are trying to excavate some.

“After the first game we were kind of, like, woken up,” Winfield said. “We know what we’ve got to do. We know we’ve got to do better. We’ve kind of just been emphasizing that in our practices.”

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

Related: Bucs punter Bradley Pinion named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week

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