TAMPA, Fla. — It will soon be a Wednesday night in Week 8 of his first NFL season, and just as he did the week before and every Wednesday and Thursday prior, Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie safety Antoine Winfield Jr. will go to his most trusted resource as he prepares for this week’s opponent, the New York Giants, on Monday Night Football: his father, Antoine Winfield Sr.
The call usually comes at 6 p.m., and via FaceTime, the two discuss their plan of attack. Winfield Jr., the Buccaneers’ second-round pick, sits at either his couch or the kitchen table and points his phone at his laptop. His father, who spent 14 years in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings, sits on his couch more than 1,000 miles away in Texas and studies the screen.
On Wednesdays, they go over first and second downs. They talk about formations, playcalls and route concepts, with the goal of helping Winfield Jr. play fast.
Winfield Sr. has been instrumental in helping his son — Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated defensive rookie through Week 5 — adjust and even thrive in his first season in the league.
“I taught him everything I know,” Winfield Sr. told ESPN. “He plays exactly like I do, but he’s gonna be a better player than I was.”
Coaching up Junior
Winfield Jr. and the Bucs have already seen these calls pay off.
Before the Bucs’ Week 2 game against the Carolina Panthers, Winfield Jr. told his father, “Dad, keep in mind this formation. We have a blitz called, so I’ll be coming off the edge.”
So Winfield Sr. told him, “OK, of course the running back is gonna pick you up, he’ll see you coming to the line of scrimmage. When you blitz, get on the edge, get on the shoulder of the running back, because the quarterback is gonna step up and he’s gonna escape.”
He got to the point, fell back and chased quarterback Teddy Bridgewater down, sacking him and knocking the ball loose. It was recovered by Jason Pierre-Paul, setting up a 23-yard touchdown throw to Mike Evans.
“I was so excited,” Winfield Sr. said. “I [was] running around the house, yelling, jumping.”
He couldn’t be at the game, as no fans were allowed at Raymond James Stadium because of COVID-19, but distance didn’t diminish his excitement or the magnitude of the moment.
“I lose my voice every Sunday,” Winfield Sr. said. “I know this means a lot to him. He puts a lot of time in, a lot of work — I’m just ecstatic for him.”
“It was cool just to have him out there,” Winfield Jr. said. “He told me I did a great job and to keep ballin’.”
Winfield Jr. is doing what defensive coordinator Todd Bowles instructed when he named him the starter at the end of camp: “Go out and own it.” His 2.0 sacks are tied for the most among safeties in the NFL this season, while his four pass breakups are tied for third most. His 242 coverage snaps are the most of any rookie this season and his 37 combined tackles (25 solo) are fifth most. And he’s done it at different positions. When Sean Murphy-Bunting suffered a hamstring injury, Winfield Jr. moved to nickelback without batting an eye.
“He’s a good football player, regardless of this situation or any situation. He’s smart, he’s heady, he makes plays and he makes you trust him,” Bowles said.
“It’s not a lot of times you get a rookie coming in as a free safety and making calls,” defensive captain Lavonte David said. “Sometimes they’re not sure of themselves, but he’s very sure of himself. He’s talking, he’s communicating, he’s making sure you get the call. … I really like that.”
On Sunday, the Las Vegas Raiders had pulled within four points in the fourth quarter, before Tom Brady and Chris Godwin connected on a 4-yard strike to make it 31-20. But they needed some cushion to their lead. That’s when safety Mike Edwards dove in front of Nelson Agholor on a dig route, with Winfield coming down with it for his first career interception. “It just came straight to me and I just caught the ball,” Winfield said.
“It’s a great feeling, getting my first interception. I feel like I should have had it last week, but it was great finally actually catching the ball. It just felt amazing.”
‘Football’s in our DNA’
Winfield Sr. can still remember placing a football in Winfield Jr.’s hands when he was a toddler and watching him take off with it — his father gently tackling him to the ground from his knees.
“He didn’t really have a choice,” Winfield Sr. joked. “I mean, he’s my junior, my firstborn — I put a football in his hands when he came out of the womb. I think football’s in our DNA.”
He also remembers his son climbing into bed with him when he studied film after practice, which progressed into more detailed instruction when he got into high school.
“He would jump in next to me [and ask], ‘Dad, whatcha watching? Who you playing this week? Why are you always in the bed watching all this film?'” Winfield Sr. said.
“I said, ‘Son, this is my job. 24/7, 365 days we’re working. I have to get out there and perform well. That’s the tip that you get as a DB. Because quarterbacks and receivers are really good. So if you’re watching film, you can get a head start and recognize some things — that gives you an opportunity to make plays.'”
“I was like, ‘All right. … OK, I see. That’s what I’m gonna have to do when I get older and play in the NFL,'” Winfield Jr. said.
There are lessons to be learned each week, but not always X’s and O’s. When the Bucs lost a Thursday night game to the Chicago Bears in Week 5, father told son, “It’s football. You’re not going to win every one.”
“He’ll say, ‘If you have a loss, get back and get ready to go to work,'” Winfield Jr. said. “Watch the film, correct the changes and mistakes, just learn from it. Grow from your mistakes that you made so you can just get better.”
His biggest piece of advice?
“Always be prepared,” Winfield Sr. said. “When you’re prepared, that breeds confidence. Confidence leads to you going out there and making plays. I told him, ‘Every time you step on the field, you always gonna think in your mind, “I’m the best player out here. I’m gonna make the plays I’m supposed to make. I’m gonna be in the position I’m supposed to be in.” If you do that, you’ll have a long, successful career.'”
Like father, like son
The similarities between father and son are endless, even if they play different positions. Both are 5-foot-9, although Winfield Jr. plays at 203 pounds while his father played at around 180 to 185.
“They’re identical,” said cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross, who coached Winfield Sr. in Minnesota for three seasons. “They each have a 6-inch punch. [Winfield Jr.] practices very hard, he’s very smart, very instinctive. … I think he’s going to have a hell of a year.”
“I didn’t have the size,” Winfield Sr. said. “He’s definitely stronger than me. He has more knowledge of the game than I did. I was the first to do it in my family. … With me helping him from an early age, and watching him through the years, elevating his game, he’s a special player. As you see it on Sunday — he’s out there, doesn’t look like a rookie.
“He’s blitzing a lot more. He’s playing in the post. I wish I could have played like that. It’s just the awareness.”
“I would say it’s natural, but it also comes with a lot of hard work,” Winfield Jr. said. “If you do it in practice, you’ll do it in the game, so my goal is always to stay around the ball in practice. Then it shows up during game time. You have to practice it all the time for it to actually happen.”
The same could be said for their father and son film-study sessions too, which they’ve got down pat.
“He plays beyond his years right now,” Bowles said. “He plays like a veteran, he understands the game, he plays the game the right way. He makes his plays and he understands that when his opportunity comes up, he has to make a play — and he does.”
The real question will be if he can ultimately outdo his dad. With Winfield Sr.’s 20 career interceptions, he has 19 more to go.
“I’m definitely gonna try to pass him in all his stats,” Winfield Jr. said. “That’s my goal, to beat him in everything — tackles, picks, forced fumbles, whatever it is — I want to have a better game than him.”