TAMPA — Antoine Winfield Jr.’s triple-crowning moment ― a sack, forced fumble and fumble recovery ― in last week’s 20-17 win over the Vikings got the attention of arguably the greatest pass-rushing defensive back in football.
“I texted him after the game and said, ‘Dude, go ahead and be the next 20/20 guy,” Ronde Barber said, “because nobody blitzes the quarterback from the safety position like he does.”
Barber, a former Bucs cornerback who was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August, was a 28-sack, 47-interception guy who set the standard. Already, Winfield’s 10 career sacks are the most by a safety in team history and more than any other NFL defensive back over the past four seasons.
On the late first-quarter play when Winfield sacked Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, credit is due to the scheme of Bucs head coach Todd Bowles, who also is the team’s defensive play-caller. He put seven down linemen near the line of scrimmage.
At the snap, both outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett and inside linebacker Lavonte David dropped into coverage, creating a five-man pressure package. Inside linebacker Devin White rushed through the B-gap, quickly beating Vikings fullback C.J. Ham. Winfield followed White through the hole and became a free pass rusher.
Winfield, 25, never set out to be the sack king among defensive backs when he was selected by the Bucs out of Minnesota in the second round of the 2020 draft.
“Coming into the league, no, I wasn’t thinking about sacks,” he said. “But that’s just the scheme of the defense. If the play is there, you’ve got to make the play.”
Knowing he was going to be used close to the line of scrimmage at times, Winfield took it upon himself to learn how to beat the extra blocker and root out the quarterback.
“He has a knack,” Bowles said. “He can set up blockers and go under, go around ― he knows when they’re off balance, when to go over top of them. He has a good feel. I think he does a lot of film study on who’s blocking and how they’re trying to block him. You’ve got to have a feel for that. There’s a lot of people that blitz and run right into the guy. He does not.”
Barber did some film study for the Bucs’ social media platform on Winfield. On the early pressure, it was a textbook example of setting up the one-on-one blocker.
“If you have a blocker — a back or a tight end or somebody that’s having to move toward you to block you? —that dude has no ... chance,” Barber said. “Because all I ever thought to do was keep my eye on the quarterback, and that guy is just an obstacle in the way. You don’t look at him. Don’t try to beat him. Don’t try to have a rush plan.
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“You know who told me that was (Hall of Famer and former Bucs defensive tackle) Warren Sapp. Your only goal is to get the quarterback. It doesn’t matter how you do it. If (the blocker) is moving toward you? (Winfield) has this ability to foot fake and get skinny, dip his shoulders or put a move on him at the last second.”
Winfield did just that on two pivotal first-quarter plays. The first short-circuited the Vikings’ opening drive. The second set up the Bucs’ first points.
“The second play of the game, he hit the quarterback,” Barber said. “Dude, that running back (Alexander Mattison) had no chance. I was like, this is going to be a hit, and it was a hit. Then on his sack, the trifecta — the sack, fumble and recovery — it’s scheme, and I got home a lot because of scheme. Give credit to Todd and the scheme or whatever. But you need somebody who can finish those opportunities.”
At 5-feet-9, 203 pounds, Winfield is a little bigger than Barber in terms of his strength. He also isn’t likely to play 16 seasons the way Barber did. But some of the similarities are striking, even to Barber.
“I feel like when he gets near anyone he has to tackle, the dude is going on the ground,” Barber said. “I love that about him. I think that’s what makes him one of the better players in the league.”
In just his fourth season, Winfield already has won a Super Bowl and been invited to the Pro Bowl. But he didn’t get there by chance. He is the son of the former Vikings and Bills defensive back by the same name. And like his dad, Winfield is a big film junkie.
“I would say I always have a plan,” Winfield said. “Going into the week, I see how the running backs will pick up the blitz. If he’s wide, I know he’s coming out. If he stops his feet, I’ve got a two-way go. Jab him this way and come inside. It’s really just all film study.”
Creating a fumble is what Winfield always tries to do when colliding with ball carriers. Not only was he able to jar the ball loose from Cousins, he snatched it from the pile at the Vikings 18-yard line. The play set up a 36-yard Chase McLaughlin field goal.
“Just ball awareness,” Winfield said. “Once I saw the quarterback raise up, my plan was to just smack the ball out of his hand because I had a perfect opportunity to. And then my force running down, I kind of hit him and I really didn’t want to, because I wanted to scoop and score. That would’ve been a 4-for-4. That would’ve been awesome. Maybe that’s the goal next time. But really, I’m just trying to make a play.”
A year ago, the Bucs played Winfield as the nickel cornerback in the slot, putting him in position to affect more plays . He could rush, pass defend or make tackles for loss.
However, the physicality is greater as you move closer to the football. The Bucs needed more interceptions, and Winfield needed a way to stay healthier, so this year he moved back to free safety.
If you can’t help but think of Barber when you watch Winfield play, you’re not alone.
“Is he like me? Yes, because of the physical nature of the way he plays,” Barber said. “He’s bigger than me, obviously. He weighs more than me. But they were asking him to do something he couldn’t do. He has short space quickness, but he doesn’t have short space acceleration.
“You can’t cover down the field if you don’t have that. As much as I wasn’t a great technical corner at the line of scrimmage, I could at least accelerate with speed, and that’s how I survived in there. It’s the only way you can survive in there.”
As a ball hawk, Winfield has some catching up to do. He has only four career interceptions.
There was, however, one other similarity on Sunday. After recovering Cousins’ fumble, Winfield pointed to the name on the back of his jersey, one familiar to Vikings fans. His father played nine seasons in Minnesota.
Though it was for a different reason, it was the trademark move by Barber after every big play.
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