Watching an NFL team practice in training camp can be a two-hour blur. There’s activity on multiple fields at the same time, making it hard to appreciate just how much is happening in a given moment.
Last year, we kept an eye on quarterback Tom Brady for an entire practice, taking note of every throw he made and swig of water he took, and as a wrinkle on that, we sought to do the same with a defensive player this time around. Defense has often been the neglected side of the Bucs in this training camp, with high-profile offensive additions such as Julio Jones and Kyle Rudolph, injury news with Chris Godwin and Mike Evans and, well, Brady.
So on Sunday morning, we spent what ended up being three hours watching only safety Antoine Winfield, a crucial part of not only the Bucs’ secondary but the entire defense as Tampa Bay seeks another championship. Coming off his first trip to the Pro Bowl and still only 23 (for a week, anyway), he’ll be all over the field in a versatile role this season, and Sunday provided a glimpse of that. Of course, as a fan favorite, he also made some time for the fans.
Editor’s note: While the team was aware we were tracking Winfield on Sunday, they said they didn’t tell him.
8:42 a.m.: Pre-practice begins
Just minutes before the Bucs warm up as a team, Winfield steps out of the facility with a red T-shirt untucked under his red No. 31 jersey (defensive players are in red, offensive players in white today). Players are in their white pants with red, orange and pewter piping on the sides. Winfield is wearing a pewter/gray NFL skull cap under his helmet and a pair of black Nike cleats, but he brings out a red pair as well in case he wants to swap them out.
Nearly the entire team, minus quarterbacks and injured players, spreads out across the end zone in the middle of three practice fields. They high-step out to the 40-yard line, then back, then sidestep out and back, then walk backward, stretching down to touch the opposite foot as they go, the last 10 yards in full backpedal. Winfield’s stretching has only begun.
8:52 a.m.: Special teams/stretching
Most of the team is busy with special teams work, and though Winfield doesn’t play on coverage units, he’s busy on the middle field, doing an extensive personal routine. He reties his shoes, pulls a water bottle out of a Gatorade-branded caddy loaded with bottles.
All sorts of stretching continues, and cornerback Carlton Davis shadow-boxes him with a few right jabs to greet him. More stretching, more water, then linebacker Devin White greets him with a faux right jab. He reties both shoes, gets a pat on the back from general manager Jason Licht, then starts working on his backpedal on the middle field. Backpedal and run to the right, backpedal and run to the left. Then he’s on his back, pulling up each leg to his chest, then both. He works on a short backpedal and surge back toward the line of scrimmage, stopping after one session to shake hands with former Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica, a guest at practice with his three kids.
Maral Javadifar, the team’s director of rehabilitation and performance coach, helps him with one last stretch, then Winfield puts on a pair of gloves, white on the outside and blue on the inside. He stands at the Gatorade caddy, swinging each leg forward and backward, then wide from side to side. Defensive backs need loose hips to change direction quickly.
“You’ve got to,” Winfield says after practice of his stretching routine. “Always been that way. You’ve got to warm your legs up, and the more you get into camp, your body gets fatigued and tired, so you have to spend extra time warming up and getting everything going first.”
Fun feature on Bucs safety Antoine Winfield coming Wednesday. Quite an extensive stretching routine before practice, starting with regular team warmup line. pic.twitter.com/KUG2ETThWi
— Greg Auman (@gregauman) August 9, 2022
As the air horn sounds for the start of the first period of positional work, Winfield breaks into a full sprint, running from the field nearest the fans in bleachers and clear across two fields, all the way to the far sideline of the far field, then back to the middle field where the safeties will be working.
9:12 a.m.: Position work with safeties
The Bucs have eight safeties on their 90-man roster battling for what will be four or five spots. Four seem to be locks in Winfield, fourth-year pro Mike Edwards and two veteran newcomers, Logan Ryan and Keanu Neal. There’s also Ross Cockrell (who generally works as a nickel defensive back) and three younger players: Chris Cooper and Troy Warner, who spent last year on the Bucs’ practice squad, and an undrafted rookie in Clemson’s Nolan Turner. Warner hasn’t practiced in recent days due to a minor injury, so there are seven safeties for Sunday’s practice.
They’re working with safeties coach Nick Rapone, 66, who knows this defense well. He was Bruce Arians’ defensive coordinator at Temple in 1985 when Todd Bowles played safety for the Owls, and he coached with both for the Arizona Cardinals as well. Assistant defensive backs coach Tim Atkins is also working with the safeties, as is Rashad Johnson, a Bill Walsh Coaching Fellow who played under Rapone, Bowles and Arians as a safety in Arizona.
It’s a 20-minute period, and Winfield is the first through each drill. First the safeties backpedal, sprint toward the line of scrimmage, then drop back in coverage to catch a pass. Next, the safeties work on engaging with an initial block and getting through that contact to attack a ball carrier.
“You have to engage, then you have to disengage,” Rapone tells the safeties.
It’s mental as much as physical, focusing on recognition and communication. A safety and coach line up as twin receivers bunched together, and the safety lined up in coverage must show which route he follows as part of each scheme. All safeties, including Winfield, rotate in as the scout receiver in these drills. They work on covering a receiver’s initial route and adjusting to cover a zone, and they even line up in a full defensive backfield, with Johnson mimicking a receiver in motion pre-snap so they can communicate how the coverage is passed from one player’s responsibility to another.
9:32 a.m.: One-on-one pass coverage drills
Brady and the other quarterbacks and receivers walk over to the end zone of the middle field, and this second period has quarterbacks throwing from the 10-yard line toward the end zone and receivers in one-on-one matchups with defensive backs.
There is no offensive line, just a manager tossing the snap underhand to Brady, and Winfield sets up shop on one knee directly next to that manager. That allows him to watch Brady and communicate with the defensive backs that alternate on the left and right side of the field, taking on receivers one at a time.
Antoine Winfield looks on as Tom Brady throws in one-on-one passing drills at Bucs practice. pic.twitter.com/sIGrKEKXRA
— Greg Auman (@gregauman) August 9, 2022
Winfield watches as several pairings go through an assortment of throws, then walks out for his own matchup against undrafted rookie receiver Jerreth Sterns. Sterns is getting extra work with the first offense because four receivers aren’t practicing Sunday, with Godwin recovering from knee surgery, Evans and Breshad Perriman nursing minor hamstring injuries and Jones getting a veteran maintenance day.
Winfield is only 5-foot-9, but Sterns is perhaps shorter; he’s listed at 5-foot-9, but was prolific enough to have led the FBS in catches (150), yards (1,902) and touchdowns (17) for Western Kentucky last year, a rare college triple crown. Sterns, split to the left side, makes a cut to his left, turns quickly and catches a crisp pass from backup Blaine Gabbert, reaching the ball out at the pylon for a score.
Winfield goes to the sideline and takes a knee, and Bowles walks over and talks with him, getting him into stance and demonstrating with his hands what he wants him to do. They talk for a few more minutes as other receivers and defensive backs go through their pairings.
In a second rep, Winfield draws Russell Gage, the Bucs’ best receiver practicing on this day, and Gage runs a crossing route and makes the catch, though cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross reminds both players that Winfield would have had help in the coverage they were in.
9:47 a.m.: Goal-line install
This is a shorter (eight-minute) period, with the Bucs in goal-line defense as backup defensive players simulate different offensive looks, highlighted by Bowles in a cameo as the scout-team quarterback.
A goal-line defense is stacked with defensive linemen, all wearing the “guardian cap” padding on the outside of their helmet as an extra safety measure across the NFL in the first two weeks of training camps. Winfield is a rare defensive back on the field in this look, so his bare helmet pops out by comparison. The scout-teamers are wearing bright blue and green helmet covers to signify their positions, and the drill serves as a reminder that Bowles is a left-handed passer.
The defense collects in a single huddle, as much of the rest of practice is 11-on-11 work on the field closest to fans.
9:55 a.m.: 11-on-11 work begins
This period starts with the Bucs’ No. 1 offense facing the No. 1 defense, but both sides will change out for backup units and not always at the same time, so we’re seeing multiple looks within each group of players. What is typically called the base defense for the Bucs has four defensive backs working behind two inside linebackers, two outside linebackers and three defensive linemen, but the look they’ll line up more often in a pass-happy league is their nickel, with a fifth defensive back taking the place of one defensive lineman.
More often than not last year, the Bucs’ nickel had three cornerbacks, with Sean Murphy-Bunting in the slot or nickel spot and Davis and Jamel Dean outside, at least when they were all healthy. The alternate look, often called a “big nickel,” has a third safety instead of a third corner, and the Bucs have shown a lot of three-safety looks this training camp.
Bucs opponents threw the ball an NFL-high 680 times last year, exactly 40 passes a game, and though that number should go down if they have a healthy secondary in 2022, it’ll stay high as teams try to keep pace with Brady and the high-flying offense. That makes the nickel a primary defensive look. Bowles will also utilize a dime, with a sixth defensive back subbing in for a linebacker in third-and-long and other obvious passing downs.
So Winfield is all over the field. He’s the nickel with Edwards and Ryan at safety, then a traditional safety, both in two-safety and single-high looks, sometimes in the box, sometimes in center field. The ball rarely comes his way, and the second defense comes out after a few minutes, sending Winfield and others to the sideline for a breather. The second defense works, the third team gets a quick look, then the starters are back out with two minutes left in the period. The temperature is approaching 90 in Tampa on a sunny August morning, and Winfield has already fully sweat through the shirt under his jersey.
10:08 a.m.: More 11-on-11 work
Another 15-minute full-squad 11-on-11 period follows, with the first defense again showing multiple looks in three minutes on the field. Ryan picks off a Gabbert pass for another of several interceptions by the defense. Second-year quarterback Kyle Trask throws two, one picked off by Cockrell and another by rookie outside linebacker Jordan Young.
Next is a kicking period, showcasing one of the team’s few true competitions for a starting job, with veteran Ryan Succop and second-year pro Jose Borregales battling and alternating days in practice. Today is a Borregales day and Winfield is still on the field, as the Bucs tend to use a lot of defensive regulars on their field-goal defense unit. They’re not actually trying to block anything today, but they line up as if they were and just stop in place at the snap. Borregales is a perfect 6-for-6 on the day, moving out from 28 yards, adding 5 yards at a time until he’s hitting from 50 or so.
10:34 a.m.: Even more 11-on-11
The Bucs have generally mixed in 7-on-7 periods in the second half of practice, but today it’s a ton of full-squad work, ramping things up as they prepare for joint practices with the Dolphins on Wednesday and Thursday, then their preseason opener vs. Miami at home Saturday night.
It’s nearly two hours into practice and Winfield has had a quiet day in 11-on-11 reps, with nary a pass thrown his way and even most of the runs going to the opposite side. Gabbert steps up and throws a pass across the middle for undrafted rookie receiver Kaylon Geiger, but Winfield puts his shoulder into him and the ball drops incomplete.
Then Gabbert looks deep down the right side for another undrafted rookie, former Yale tight end JJ Howland, but Winfield is playing deep and moves quickly, picking off the pass as he and Howland both fall backward. Like any good practice pick, Winfield is up in a hurry and running it back across the field and around players to the end zone.
— Tampa Bay Buccaneers (@Buccaneers) August 7, 2022
Asked about the pick later after practice, Winfield says he was camped in the middle of the field, reading the quarterback. “They actually had run the same play a few plays before, and I’m like, ‘If I get that look again, I’m going to go pick it.’ So I went over there and made a play. You have to capitalize when the opportunity comes.”
10:48 a.m.: Live period with full-contact tackling
This is the 10th practice of training camp, and contact has been carefully avoided to limit injuries before preseason games. But Sunday’s final period is a long-awaited treat — a “live” period with more than the “thud” sessions that are a notch above two-hand touch, all with safety and preservation in mind.
The Bucs had no practice Monday, so Sunday’s practice is one of the longest so far, stretching past 11 a.m. with temperatures hitting 90 by the end of it. Winfield comes up in run support and goes low to make a stop on a Leonard Fournette run. It’s ramped up even more with full-contact goal-line work, and rookie running back Rachaad White is twice able to squeeze through for short touchdowns.
The Bucs put eight seconds on the clock in a goal-to-go situation, and Brady finds receiver Tyler Johnson, who has had a strong camp, in the end zone, with Johnson toe-tapping as he twists at the back of the end zone with Edwards in coverage. The media is asked not to take video clips of 11-on-11 work, but there are fans a few feet behind us, and one posted a good clip of the catch to Reddit.
— Buccaneers Fans (@BuccaneersViews) August 7, 2022
One more play, and Brady has too much time and finds receiver Jaelon Darden at the back of the end zone, a late victory for the offense in what has been a strong defensive practice. There’s small consolation from the second defense, which gets a whistle-sack from outside linebacker Elijah Ponder on Gabbert on the practice’s final play.
11:05 a.m.: Post-practice, Winfield still hasn’t stopped
The team breaks briefly into position groups, and Ross gathers all the defensive backs in a circle. Hats come off for a brief prayer, everyone on one knee, then a final message and players are off. It’s an autograph day for kids, with enough to form a “U” from one 10-yard line around the back of the end zone to the other 10.
Winfield is exhausted but he’s a fan favorite, so he sets his helmet down on the red cleats in the middle of the field, takes a Sharpie from a Bucs staffer and greets the kids with a natural smile. He’s a chatty signer, and the kids have great kid questions. Asked if he had fun, Winfield says it’s always fun playing football. Hitting a run of four fans all in Brady jerseys, he asks them if Brady is really their favorite, adding that that’s OK because he’s “the best quarterback to ever play the game.”
Hearing kids talk about Minnesota — where his father, Antoine Sr., played the final nine years of his 14-year NFL career, and where Antoine Jr. went to college — he asks where they’re from. They’re from Andover, Minn., and he’s from Eden Prairie, on the opposite side of the Twin Cities. They admit that they aren’t Vikings fans, they’re Packers fans, but he’ll let it slide.
One fan is wearing a T-shirt capturing Winfield’s most famous moment, flashing a peace sign back at Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill in the Super Bowl after a pass breakup, a nod to Hill doing the same to the Bucs in a regular-season win that same season. When fans take a selfie with Winfield, he always flashes the peace sign with a smile, and they usually do the same. They remind him he got a penalty and a fine for that peace sign to Hill. “It was definitely worth it,” he responds.
Winfield is dexterous enough to push the button for a selfie on a fan’s phone while wearing his practice gloves, and when two boys ask, he takes off the gloves and gives them each one, signed. A visually impaired fan is in attendance, cane in hand, and after a photo, he asks Winfield for a favor, saying he’d like to hold his helmet so he knows what an NFL helmet feels like.
The air horn sounds that the 15-minute autograph session is over, but Winfield signs a few more, jogs to midfield for his helmet and brings it back for the fan, even posing wearing a helmet made to look like Optimus Prime, but in the Bucs’ old-school creamsicle orange.
There are yet more autographs and selfies as he walks back to the team facility, but he isn’t done.
The Bucs have two JUGS machines — a pair of spinning tires on a tripod — that can launch footballs to help players work on their hands before or after practice. Winfield is a regular on this machine, and even after two and a half hours of practice, he’s lined up 10 yards from it. There are large blue plastic trash cans at each end, and a can has maybe 25 balls, a manager pulling from one end to feed into the machine and the player dropping them in the other can, then the two trading cans when one is empty.
Winfield fills one can, pumping his arms in a running motion before catching the ball, then begins to fill a second can, this time starting behind the can and running forward and around it from the left for a more acrobatic catch. He stops mid-can to toss the football with young kids, first underhand until he sees they can catch, then lobbing a few regular passes. There’s a third can, this time approaching from the right, then a final few autographs for fans still waiting. It’s 11:48 when he walks back into the team facility, more than three hours after he came out.
(Photo: Julio Aguilar / Getty Images)
This content was originally published here.