TAMPA — No one has told Antoine Winfield Jr. he isn’t playing in a youth league. This isn’t high school. It’s not even college, where at the University of Minnesota they all rowed the boat in the same direction.
All grown up now in the NFL, football is no laughing matter. So why is he the only player each Sunday with a smile as wide as his chin strap?
The 5-foot-9, 203-pound safety was the biggest force on the Bucs defense in Sunday’s 21-15 win over the Falcons.
There weren’t many stat columns Winfield couldn’t fill up.
He finished the game with eight tackles to lead the defense. But that wasn’t nearly enough. Winfield added a sack, two tackles for loss, one quarterback hit, one pass defensed and one forced fumble.
He also led the team in smirks.
“I say it all the time, he’s an old-school football player and he just loves to play the game,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said. “He smiles when he’s out there. He understands it. He plays fast. He loves it. If he could be out there 24 hours a day, he probably would.”
Almost from the first snap of Sunday’s game, Winfield let the Falcons know they were in for a long afternoon.
On the Falcons’ second play on offense, quarterback Marcus Mariota ran a toss play to running back Tyler Allgeier and linebacker For Tryon-Shoyinka forced him wide as Winfield chopped him down for no gain.
A couple plays later, Winfield separated the football from tight end Feleipe Franks, the former Gators quarterback, preventing a completion for a first down.
It only got better from there.
Winfield sacked Mariota on the Falcons’ final drive before halftime, forcing a fumble. That play enabled the Bucs to take a 13-0 lead to the locker room.
Since Pro Football Reference data became available in 1999, Winfield is only the 14th defensive back in the NFL to record a game with one or more sacks, forced fumbles and passes defensed, plus two or more tackles for loss.
One of the other players on that list is none other than Winfield’s father, Antoine Sr., who accomplished it in a game at New Orleans in 2008 while playing for the Vikings.
Of course, the younger Winfield was still smiling an hour after the game in the Bucs locker room when talking about how he was all over the field.
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“Yeah, I was having fun,” he said. “I love playing football so whenever I can get a chance to make plays, that’s my goal. That’s what I want to do.”
“You have to be fired up about it, especially playing at home,” he added. “It’s our first home win and we needed it.”
The Bucs have been successful using a lot of three-safety alignments, but they have moved Winfield to nickel cornerback on certain downs to get him closer to the ball, where he can impact the game on every level as a pass rusher, run stopper and pass defender.
“It gives you flexibility. You can do certain things on certain down and distances,” Bowles said. “All three (safeties) can play the nickel, as well as some of our corners. It’ll fluctuate throughout the season but right now we feel best putting (Winfield) out there compared to some of the things that we see.
“He’s one of our best tacklers, he’s one of our most instinctive (players). He’s quick, he can read stuff and he’s explosive when he blitzes. He’s been filling in great right there.”
It’s a demanding position, one revolutionized by former Bucs Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber, who could be headed to the Hall of Fame one day.
Despite his small stature, Winfield has the physicality of a linebacker who is able to take on 300-pound guards and root out ball carriers. He has the range to play safety and the quickness to play cornerback.
“I don’t look at it as three safeties, I look at it as (Winfield) playing nickel, I really do,” Bowles said. “It’s a difficult spot because the nickel has to play corner, safety and linebacker. You’ve got to be somewhat physical and durable there. Depending on our personnel, we have different nickels for different situations in different ballgames. Right now, it suits Antoine.”
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