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Antoine Winfield Jr. shows he ‘can do it all’ as Bucs use more nickel packages

Tampa Bay played five defensive backs on 57 of 69 snaps Sunday, and Winfield impressed coaches in his first game as the slot corner.
Antoine Winfield Jr., pictured during Sunday's game against the Cowboys, played 100% of defensive snaps but often served as the slot corner. The Bucs relied on a nickel package that implemented three safeties.
Antoine Winfield Jr., pictured during Sunday's game against the Cowboys, played 100% of defensive snaps but often served as the slot corner. The Bucs relied on a nickel package that implemented three safeties. [ MICHAEL AINSWORTH | AP ]
Published Sep. 16|Updated Sep. 17

TAMPA — Back at The Woodlands High School, about a decade before his versatility became the buzzword of another NFL preseason, Antoine Winfield Jr. settled into a different hybrid role.

On paper, he was The Woodlands’ safety from 2013-15. That’s where he played most of the time. But when a college recruiter asked then-position coach Emory Bartolazzi if Winfield could play cornerback, Bartolazzi shared the Texas high school’s approach: Yes, but only for a special matchup or package.

“Our biggest fear is that they’re gonna put the superintendent’s son out there,” Bartolazzi said, “and we’re wasting Antoine covering somebody that we could cover with somebody else.”

Instead, the team left Winfield to clean things up in the back of their 3-4 defense. Safety has been his primary position — through high school, college at Minnesota and his first two years in the NFL — but Winfield’s versatility defined him from the night the Bucs selected him.

This year, he has emerged as the team’s slot-corner option in nickel packages. Playing at that spot most of the time for the first time, Winfield now hovers where “all the action is.”

The Bucs used that package more in their opener against the Cowboys. Four defensive backs (Winfield, safety Mike Edwards, and cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean) played 100% of the snaps, while safety Logan Ryan logged 57 of 69 to give the Bucs five defensive backs on the field during those plays.

“(Winfield) can do it all,” Edwards said. “He can blitz, play man, zone, and all three of us — all three-safety looks — we can interchange. We can do a lot of things with that three-safety look.”

Winfield had six total tackles and an interception, returning it 15 yards. Pass game coordinator/inside linebackers coach Larry Foote said the Bucs weren’t surprised by how well Winfield played. He helped their point of emphasis — communication between the linebackers and defensive backs — carry into the season opener, too.

Antoine Winfield Jr. made six combined tackles against the Cowboys, while also intercepting a Dak Prescott pass.
Antoine Winfield Jr. made six combined tackles against the Cowboys, while also intercepting a Dak Prescott pass. [ MICHAEL AINSWORTH | AP ]

The origin of Winfield’s versatility, though, dates back to his earliest days of football, he said. He played quarterback, running back, safety, middle linebacker — “everything.” In a local 7-on-7 league, where Winfield played with the son of Pat Kennedy, his future defensive coordinator at The Woodlands, “you could tell he was different than the average kid,” Kennedy said.

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When The Woodlands faced Katy High, Winfield shadowed future NFL running back Rodney Anderson during his snaps as a receiver. In a playoff matchup against Westlake High, Bartolazzi recalled Winfield shifting to cover a future Division-I wideout, too. Bartolazzi and Kennedy avoided placing Winfield where his impact could be mitigated, but occasionally they needed him to eliminate the impact of someone else.

“That guy had to be important enough to take Antoine away from wherever else the ball might be,” Bartolazzi said.

Winfield’s first season with The Woodlands coincided with his father, Antoine Sr.’s, final NFL training camp in 2013. Bartolazzi said the relationship paid dividends during their seasons, as Winfield Jr. would share new tendencies or signals he learned. Hints by opposing offenses — intentional or unintentional — became more obvious: a wideout drying or circling his hands at the line of scrimmage, a quarterback touching his hip or helmet.

Winfield stored plays in his mind and recalled them vividly during video sessions. The game slowed down for him, Bartolazzi said. There wasn’t much to fine-tune in practice. Winfield noticed details that impacted both him and the surrounding positions. His perch as a middle-field safety doubled as an observation deck.

Antoine Winfield Jr. (31), pictured during a training camp session in August, cross-trained throughout the summer after spending most of his first two NFL seasons at safety.
Antoine Winfield Jr. (31), pictured during a training camp session in August, cross-trained throughout the summer after spending most of his first two NFL seasons at safety. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Winfield continues to FaceTime his father and prop the camera up so they can watch film together. Recently, they’ve focused on his transition, and dad will point out techniques and positions that worked in his career.

Winfield said he needs to work on his leverage going forward. This weekend, he could draw Saints wideout Jarvis Landry, who caught seven passes for 114 yards in Week 1. It’s a “little different being down in the box,” Winfield said.

But having a player like Winfield always helps the defense, safety Keanu Neal said. Offenses don’t know what to expect before the snap. And once the play begins, they can’t “pin exactly what we’re doing,” either.

“You ask him to blitz, he’ll get the quarterback. Ask him to cover, he’ll cover slots one-on-one. Put him outside, he’ll do anything,” outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka said.

“So, his versatility is elite, and it showed on Sunday.”

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