After the Pro Bowl snub, Bucs’ Antoine Winfield Jr. gets some love

TAMPA — Antoine Winfield Jr. doesn’t need the Pro Bowl. The Bucs safety has the belt.

Winfield, left off the NFC roster for the Pro Bowl, as well as the NFL Players Association’s All-Pro Team, walked into the media studio at the Bucs’ training facility Wednesday afternoon with a gaudy wrestling-style championship belt slung over his shoulder.

It was sent by former NFL defensive back and “Good Morning Football” co-host Jason McCourty, who declared Winfield the best defensive back in the country on the NFL Network show.

“This guy is not only playing the safety position (with) interceptions and all those things,” McCourty said. “He blitzes, he tackles, he does absolutely everything on the football field.”

It wasn’t the only accolade Winfield picked up this week.

He also was named NFC defensive player of the week for Week 18. He had five tackles, including four solo stops, a sack and a forced fumble in the Bucs’ 9-0, playoff-clinching victory over the Panthers Sunday in Charlotte, North Carolina.

He joined linebacker Devin White (2020) and former Bucs quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (2018) as the only players in franchise history to earn player of the week accolades twice in the same season.

Winfield might have made the biggest play of the Bucs’ season when he forced Panthers receiver DJ Chark to fumble before he crossed the goal line early in the second quarter. As Chark reached for the end zone with his arms extended, Winfield dove and made contact with the receiver’s right arm. Chark lost control of the ball, and Tampa Bay’s Jamel Dean recovered in the end zone for a touchback.

Winfield said it’s a play he expects to make, because he runs through it so many times in his mind.

“When a runner is coming past me, I’m like, ‘OK, where’s he holding the ball? Am I going to get an opportunity to punch the ball?” Winfield said. “I don’t full-out punch it in practice, but I’m, like, running that through my mind. So, I put myself in those scenarios before it happens and then game-time presents itself and then I try to make the most of the opportunity.”

It was Winfield’s second touchdown-saving forced fumble of the season. In October, he knocked the ball out of Desmond Ridder’s right arm before the quarterback crossed the goal line, and the ball rolled out of the end zone for a touchback late in a 16-13 loss to the Falcons.

Though such plays have been season-changing for the Bucs, Winfield shrugs them off.

“That’s part of the job,” he said. “As a safety, we’re the last line of defense. So, we have to do that.”

It’s not the only thing the fourth-year defensive back has done this season. In 17 games, he amassed 122 tackles, 12 passes defensed, 8 quarterback hits, 6 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries and 3 interceptions.

He tied for the league lead in both forced fumbles and fumble recoveries, joining Eagles linebacker Haason Reddick (2022) as the only players to do so since at least 2000. Among defensive backs, Winfield finished first in sacks, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries, and tied for third in takeaways and quarterback hits.

Winfield earned a 91.2 grade from Pro Football Focus, making him the league’s highest-graded safety. He leads the NFL in most games with a takeaway and a sack this season, with four.

Additionally, Winfield is the only player since data became available in 1999 with 100 or more tackles, and three or more interceptions, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries and sacks in the same season.

He also is the only defensive back in the last 23 years with six or more sacks and six or more forced fumbles in a season, and the only one with seven or more takeaways and at least five sacks. He is just the fourth defensive back since 1982 with at least six games with a sack in a single season.

In his four years in the league, Winfield leads all defensive backs with 15 sacks, 21 quarterback hits, 11 forced fumbles and eight fumble recoveries. He is tied for seventh with 15 takeaways. Winfield leads all NFL players since his rookie season with 19 combined forced fumbles plus fumble recoveries.

As for the Pro Bowl snub (he was named a first alternate), Winfield shrugged that off, too.

“I know what I can do. I know what I am capable of,” he said with a big smile. “I know what I bring to the table.”

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