Bucs rookie making the NFL look a lot easier than it really is
When the quarterback looked across the line of scrimmage, the free safety appeared to be the least of his concerns. Antione Winfield Jr. was a short distance from the end zone and a full 9 yards away from Kirk Cousins on second-and-goal early in the fourth quarter. As the Vikings quarterback began calling the signals, Winfield took a few casual steps forward and then suddenly dropped into a crouch and began racing toward the line.

By the time the snap got in Cousins' grasp, the quarterback was doomed, and he knew it. Cousins took two steps backward, but the blitzing Winfield had already gone airborne. He stripped the ball from the quarterback's hands at the same time he was pulling him down to the turf. It was essentially the end of Minnesota's comeback on Sunday, and the continuation of Winfield's development.

The data on the back of his football card suggests Winfield should not be this good, at least not yet. He's a little undersized at 5-feet-9, and he turned 22 just before the start of the regular season, making him the youngest player on the Bucs defense. Yet 13 games into his NFL career, Winfield is third on the team in tackles, third in forced fumbles, fourth in sacks and fifth in passes defensed. He's played 99 percent of Tampa Bay's defensive snaps and has taken on different roles in the secondary.

So does he look 22 to you, coach Bruce Arians? "No, not at all," Arians laughed. "He and Tristan (Wirfs) should be hitting the proverbial 'rookie wall' by now. We joked about it all week. Both those kids - they're mature beyond their years, especially in football acumen. Antoine is just so heady. He's got his dad to lean on, he's got all his coaches to lean on, and he puts the time in."

It shortchanges his devotion to say this is Winfield's destiny, but it's hard not to feel that way. The son of three-time Pro Bowl player Antoine Winfield Sr., he used to climb into bed with his father and watch him study game film as a young boy.

A decade later, they are still at it. The father and son get together in the early evening on FaceTime to prepare for Tampa Bay's upcoming game each week. Tuesday is for scouting first- and second-down plays. Wednesday is reserved for third-down and red-zone.

They look for tendencies, trends and clues. They'll spend an hour each night, going over specific scenarios and talking out possible situations. "We're always looking ahead, and he tells me what I need to be prepared for," Winfield Jr. said after Sunday's 26-14 victory. "This is nothing new for us. We've looked at film together ever since I was young. He's never harsh. He gets me ready, helps build me up. This week was just a little more exciting because of the Vikings. It was crazy to think about being on the same field with them."

That's because Winfield Sr. spent nine of his 14 years in the NFL with the Vikings and his son grew up around the franchise. When it came time for college, Junior went down the street to the University of Minnesota and led the Big Ten in interceptions in 2019. There was some talk that the Vikings might draft Winfield Jr. at No. 31, but they took cornerback Jeff Gladney instead. The Bucs grabbed Winfield 14 picks later, and he was named the NFC's Defensive Rookie of the Year in September.

If the Vikings had not yet realized what they had missed out on, Winfield showed them with a game-high 11 tackles, along with the sack on second-and-goal that pushed Minnesota back to the 20. Shaq Barrett followed with another sack, and the Vikings were virtually done. "I'm sure he's elated (and his) family is probably elated," Arians said. "When you play the team you grew up watching your dad (play for) and (remember) being in the locker room, it's huge. When he got that blitz-sack, I would have loved to see us pick up the fumble and score. That was a great, great job by him."

From Minnesota's formation, Winfield said he knew they were going to try a play-action pass or a bootleg, so there was no hesitation on the blitz. He went untouched past the left side of the line and was on Cousins before running back Dalvin Cook was even out of the backfield. If a player watches enough film, he can pick up on those types of opponent tendencies. And if a fan watches enough Bucs games, he can expect to see plenty more of that in the future.

John Romano, Tampa Bay Times, published 14 December 2020