If you haven’t checked out this series before, we’ll be taking a deeper dive into how some of your favorite Buccaneers’ players improved on their craft throughout the season to help bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Tampa Bay.
The most voted upon player from the last entry into this series was none other than Antoine Winfield Jr., the first year safety out of Minnesota who showed that there wasn’t a play he couldn’t make.
Throughout the majority of the regular season, Winfield Jr. continually made big plays when the Bucs needed them most. He racked up three sacks, two forced fumbles, one interception, and six passes defensed in a stellar rookie season that earned him a spot on the PFWA all-rookie team.
In the post-season, he really started to become a household name by continuously making big play after big play. I think everyone will remember his forced fumble against Jared Cook in the Divisional Round game and his fantastic performance in the Super Bowl, especially because of the peace sign heard ‘round the world.
Despite the high level of play throughout the regular season, there were still some areas that the rookie struggled in, which is why we’ll be talking about him today.
Early in the regular season, Winfield Jr. looked to struggle with the mental processing of offenses at the NFL level. Despite the high I.Q. play that we saw from him at Minnesota, he looked to play with a little less speed and confidence as he entered into the big leagues.
This really prevented him from making the big plays in the passing game that we were accustomed to at the collegiate level. However, after the bye-week, it seemed like the game slowed down for him and it showed in his ensuing play.
What exactly was it that we saw that would really indicate his struggles early on? Well, let’s dive right in.
Dropping too deep
Now dropping too deep can come as a result of any number of things. A player might be worried about getting beat over the top, they might lack the confidence to play up, they need more space to have time to process, or sometimes it’s just coached that way.
When you look at a star safety, the big things you see are range, speed, and confidence that ultimately allow these players to play up and undercut routes for interceptions. Looking at a player like Minkah Fitzpatrick, who possesses all three of these traits, this play style can be very rewarding.
Early on, we didn’t have a chance to see all three of these traits in action from our guy Winfield Jr. While he did show the range and speed that is often indicative of a great safety, his confidence wasn’t all there and that was seen in the depth of his drops.
Let’s take a look at an example from Week Two against the Carolina Panthers:
So the Buccaneers look to be in Cover 4 here on a Panthers third and six. While it may look like Cover 3, I saw it as Cover 4 because the backside corner plays man to man when an offense lines up in a 3x2 set.
On this third and six, Winfield Jr. starts off 15 yards off the ball as a safety typically does, however, he backs up an additional five yards on his drop once the play begins.
I’m not sure if he was worried about getting beat over the top, but he needs to be more aware of the yard marker here. When an offense has six yards to go on third down, there’s a low probability that they’ll be sending deep routes over the middle, but Winfield Jr. takes this drop anyway.
Because he took so deep of a drop, when he recognizes the route settling down over the middle he’s about eight yards off the receiver and isn’t close enough to break on the ball to disrupt the pass. This ultimately allows an easy first down conversion simply because the initial drop was so deep.
Let’s take a look at another play where Winfield Jr. dropped himself out of the play:
This time, the Bucs look to be running a Cover 3 with an outside linebacker dropping on the backside due to Devin White coming off the edge. Winfield Jr. is playing over the middle once again and sees Mecole Hardman (17) running a deep post.
While he starts off by playing this well due to the potential for a deeper route, he sits too far deep when he sees Hardman settle down in the middle of the zone. While Mahomes does make an absolutely crazy throw here, if Winfield Jr. came up on the route, there’s a good chance that he would’ve been in position to break up the pass.
Now let’s take a look at this happening once again in the Week Nine matchup against the New Orleans Saints:
Tampa Bay looks to be lining up in a typical Cover 4 here with one less underneath zone due to a corner blitz from the slot. Since the Saints run play action here, the underneath defenders are initially shallower due to the run fake which means there’s a lot more room between them and the deep defenders.
Winfield Jr. once again begins 15 yards deep and again backs up an additional 5-10 yards in case the post route from the backside enters into his zone. However, if he were to settle down in this zone and wait for the backside route to come to him, he would be in better position to break up this pass that comes right in from of him.
Additionally, Jordan Whitehead looks to take the deep post all the way across the field which negates the need for Winfield Jr. to pick up that route in the first place. In either case, this is a wide open throw for Brees and it allows the Saints to pick up an easy first down.
Now let’s take a look at how these drops changed later in the season that allowed Winfield Jr. to come up and take routes out of a play:
The Bucs once again look to be in Cover 4. Say what you will about the deep drops against the Saints short-intermediate passing game, but regardless of this, there are opportunities to make plays with this call and Winfield Jr. shows that here.
While he does begin at that initial 15 yard depth point, instead of back-peddling straight back, he sort of shuffles a few yards back and watches the play develop in front of him.
When he sees Michael Thomas (13) curl back to the ball, the shallower drop leaves him only three yards off of him which means that he’s able to break on the route and stop anything coming in that direction.
Even though Brees doesn’t throw to Thomas here, Winfield Jr. is in absolutely perfect position to break up, or intercept a pass if it does come his way.
Here’s a look at a similar play from the Bucs Week 14 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings:
Todd Bowles looks to call another Cover 4 here on a third and five. Winfield Jr. is once again 15 yards off the ball, but as we saw in the last play, he also takes a shallower shuffle drop which puts him in perfect position to drive on anything coming underneath him.
Once he Sees Justin Jefferson (18) settle down in the middle of the field hole, he immediately drives on it and cuts off any potential pass in that direction. While the Vikings are able to pick up this first down, it’s through no fault of Winfield Jr. as he plays his route perfectly.
The takeaway here is that as the season wore on, his drops became a lot more shallow which put him in much better positions to drive on any routes that settled down in front of him.
If he’s able to play like this going forward, I think we can expect to see a few more interceptions as he’ll be able to break on the ball and actually affect the pass, rather than just waiting to make a tackle after the completion.
Slow route recognition
This is another area that Winfield Jr. struggled with early on in his rookie season. Route recognition is something that takes time to develop, so it makes sense that this would be an area of concern in the first half of the season.
Despite this, he showed a lot of improvement in this area especially during the Buccaneers post-season push. However, let’s look at an example of how this poor route recognition led to some big plays for opposing offenses early on in the season:
The Bucs look to be in a Cover 6 look here which means that the wide-side of the field defenders are playing Cover 4, and the short-side of the field defenders are playing Cover 2.
Winfield Jr. is on the Cover 2 side which means that his responsibility is the deep half on the short side of the field. However, if there are two routes on a play and one of these routes comes right underneath him, he has to be there to help over the top if the wide-side inside safety isn’t able to pick up the route underneath like we see here.
While the result of this play is more so related to the issues that Whitehead has here, Winfield Jr. has to put himself in better position to help out. If you’ll notice, Winfield Jr. doesn’t really start to open his hips to go deep until the receiver is about five yards away from him.
This looks to be based on the poor route recognition as it takes him a lot more time to process that this receiver is in fact going deep.
Unfortunately for Winfield Jr. and this secondary, this receiver just happens to have track speed and this slow recognition allows him to simply sprint past both defenders to end up wide open for a long touchdown.
Now let’s take a look at how quickly he was able to recognize this same kind of route in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs:
As we saw in the last play, the Bucs also appear to be in Cover 6 with Winfield Jr. playing on the two deep side. When Winfield Jr. sees Tyreek Hill pick up a head of steam like he’s going on a deep post, he immediately opens up his hips and is able to get over the top to stop any deep throws.
Instead of waiting until Hill was five yards away from him like we saw in the last play, this time he opens up his hips with about 10 yards of space which allows him to match the speed of Hill on the backend.
It’s almost night and day between these two clips and we can really start to see how Winfield Jr. was able to recognize this route much more quickly. Instead of waiting for the receiver to get within five yards of him, he starts to open up almost immediately as he knows that Hill’s route is going to go deep.
Poor crash angles
Here’s another area that Winfield Jr. struggled with a bit early on. While this was not as pronounced as the other issues that we discussed, it still led to some big plays that could’ve been mitigated by taking a better angle.
Some of these issues were primarily because he would drop too deep as we discussed earlier, however on this play, he simply takes a poor angle while trying to break up this touchdown:
This looks to be a Cover 3 call here in condensed space which should make it easier for defenders to read what’s going on in front of them.
However for Winfield Jr., he is so focused on the eyes of Brees that he is taken right out of the play when Brees looks him off in the middle of the field. Despite him giving away the middle seam here on an out and up from the tight end, he is still in good position to drive on this and break up the pass with a big hit.
Unfortunately, he hesitates slightly and can’t seem to drive with the same speed or confidence that we saw him use at the collegiate level to make these big hits.
Even though White could’ve played this better and maybe bumped his receiver to give Winfield Jr. more time to get into position, a middle of the field safety should be able to drive on these and lay the boom on any receivers coming in that direction.
This is exactly what we see here from the Bucs Week 17 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons:
Again it looks to be a Cover 3 call here with the Falcons using a run fake to draw up the underneath defenders to free up routes in the middle of the field.
Here we can see Winfield Jr. using all of the improvements that we’ve seen so far to break up this ball. Not only is the drop much shallower, but his recognition of what was coming on the backside is what allows him to drive on this with such speed and confidence.
When he sees Hayden Hurst (81) coming over the middle on a post route, he drives on this like a man possessed and forces an incompletion in the red zone by delivering a huge hit.
While this may look like a routine play from a Pro-Bowl caliber safety, this is something that a lot of safeties struggle with, Winfield Jr. included. However, it’s clear that with each passing week he gained the confidence he needed to make these kinds of plays and this is something we should all be excited about going forward.
Despite the high praise that Antoine Winfield Jr. drew throughout the majority of the season due to his big play ability, he did struggle a lot in coverage. This is primarily because he seemed to lack the confidence that it takes to play up towards the line of scrimmage which led to his drops being 20-25 yards deep.
What we saw after the bye week though, is something that he should hang his hat on going forward. He really started to play with the speed that we were accustomed to seeing at the collegiate level, and it seems as if the game really slowed down for him.
We saw this in not only his drop depth, but also in his ability to drive on routes with confidence to completely erase receivers on certain plays. This ultimately allowed him to play shutdown defense while also putting him in position to make big hits on anything coming in his direction.
With the sheer amount of improvement we’ve already seen in these areas in only one season, it should give a lot of Bucs fans confidence going forward that Winfield Jr. has everything it takes to be a star safety in this league
If it weren’t for these improvements, we may not even be talking about the Buccaneers as Super Bowl Champions either. His ability to shutdown the backend of an offense that is predicated on going deep is indicative of exactly the caliber of player we’re talking about here.
But what do you think Bucs fans? Do you think Winfield Jr. improved as much as I think he did? How do you see him as a player going forward? Be sure to let me know in the comments and vote in the poll below to tell me who you want to see next!
Who do you want to see next in the "Getting better to be the best" series?
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Ronald Jones II
Other (list in comments below!)