TAMPA — The quietest man on the team, speaking just loudly enough for players huddled in the locker room to hear him after Sunday’s 3-point loss to the Falcons, said some things that still were reverberating 48 hours later.
Antoine Winfield Jr. had demonstrated he would never give up on a play. Now the Bucs safety had a message that was more about heart than hustle.
“Antoine Winfield hit it on the head after the game: ‘How great do you want to be?’ ” quarterback Baker Mayfield said Tuesday, recounting the impassioned post-game speech. “We have a lot of great leaders on this team, a lot of guys that have played a lot of ball, so let’s do our jobs first and see where this thing goes.
“He’s a key leader and obviously made a ton of big plays in that game and has been consistent obviously here for a while. Those are the guys we have to lean on and follow that leadership, and everybody else has to fall in line.”
At 5-foot-9, 203 pounds, Winfield is not the biggest physical presence, but players look up to him. The Pro Bowl safety twice prevented a guaranteed Falcons touchdown Sunday.
First, he knocked the football from receiver Drake London out of bounds at the Tampa Bay 1-yard line midway through the third quarter. On the next play, Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder fumbled the center snap and the Bucs recovered.
Then, with the Falcons seemingly putting the game away with Ridder running toward the front pylon for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, Winfield punched the football out of his right arm and through the end zone for a touchback.
But after the game, unhappy that the defense had given up some big plays in back-to-back losses to the Lions and Falcons, Winfield had something to say.
“Just that we’ve got to close those games out,” he said. “We’ve got to play better and we’ve got to win those close games like that. And that pretty much summarizes it. We’ve just got to find a way to win.
“Everybody took it well. We’re all trying to win here. We’re all professionals. I just felt like it needed to be said and I said what I said. I feel like I’m a man of a few words, but when I say something, I really mean it.”
After a 3-1 start, the Bucs have lost two in a row and three of their last four games heading into their Thursday Night Football game at Buffalo.
While the defense hasn’t been the biggest culprit — the Bucs have allowed 20 or fewer points in five of their six games — there always seems to be a play or two that the unit has messed up with a miscommunication that helped make the difference in the outcome.
On Sunday, after Tampa Bay tied the score on Chase McLaughlin’s 36-yard field goal with 45 seconds remaining, Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts was allowed to run free for a 39-yard completion. That set up the winning 51-yard field goal by Younghoe Koo as time expired.
“’Twoine pretty much told us, ‘How good do we want to be? It’s up to us to write our own story. Our destiny is in front of us. We’ve got to go out and take it. It’s up to the guys in this locker room,’ ” tackle Tristan Wirfs said. “It was pretty cool coming from ’Twoine. We all know how incredible of a player he is. I mean, that play he made on the goal line, that’s insane.
“So coming from him, everyone listens. All eyes were on him. It was really cool.”
Winfield has been the Bucs’ most valuable player. He can fill up a stat line in every game.
He already has 42 tackles, two tackles for loss, two sacks, three quarterback hits, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and five passes defensed. Throughout his four-year career, his quiet leadership style is similar to Lavonte David’s.
“By nature, he’s not that rah-rah guy,” co-defensive coordinator Larry Foote said of Winfield. “But with his play, he’s a leader and he demonstrates that on a week-to-week basis. What a better way to learn than to see our best player make that play (the fumble for a touchback). That should raise the standard to everybody. ...
“If our best player is fighting, defending every blade of grass, everybody should be doing it.”
Outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett said Winfield’s hustle play to force a touchback covered a mistake that Barrett had made by losing containment on the play.
“We need guys doing that and that’s how we get to where we want to get to as a defense, having guys chasing plays down where you’ve always got to believe you can take an angle to make the play,” he said.
The Bucs face a big test against Bills quarterback Josh Allen on Thursday. Barrett said Winfield’s words will still ring loudly in his teammates’ heads.
“He just knows the people on our team and knows what we can be,” Barrett said. “He wants us to get there. He wanted us to know how good we could be. You’ve got to want it bad enough to get there, and I’m pretty sure we do, we’ve got to put it together. It was well-said and what we needed to hear, especially coming from a teammate and not one of the coaches.”
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