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Antoine Winfield presents an interesting matchup challenge for the Packers

The third-year defensive back is playing a new role for Tampa, and the Packers will have to respond.

Green Bay Packers v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense has great talent at every level, but safety Antoine Winfield Jr. presents one of the Packers’ most interesting matchup challenges this week.

A Pro Bowler last season, the third-year defensive back is a versatile piece in Tampa’s secondary, adding value against the run as well as the pass and even performing some spot duty as a pass rusher.

Winfield is small for a safety (5-foot-9, 203 pounds at the 2020 NFL Combine) and that size probably kept him off the Packers’ draft board that year, but he’s a good all-around athlete.

He’s used that athleticism to find a unique niche in the Tampa Bay secondary this year; though he’s nominally a safety, he has spent the bulk of his time this year lined up as a slot corner. Of his 139 snaps charted by Pro Football Focus, he’s been in the slot for 99.

That’s a significant departure from previous seasons; in both 2020 and 2021, Winfield spent the vast majority of his time in a traditional free safety role, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was in the box in a hybrid linebacker role.

But even if the role is new, Winfield has performed well. He’s allowed just five completions on nine targets in coverage and came up with an interception in Week 1. In total, quarterbacks have managed only a 34.3 passer rating when throwing his way this season.

However, it’s fair to wonder if Winfield has been tested much this season. In Week 1, most of Winfield’s targets in coverage had him matched up against wide receivers Noah Brown and Simi Fehoko and running back Tony Pollard. Pollard is a good player, but that group doesn’t exactly represent a surplus of All-Pro receiving talent. Winfield did see three targets in coverage on CeeDee Lamb, and allowed just one catch, but the overall trend shows him not seeing much competition there.

The same was true in Week 2, where Winfield was only targeted in coverage once; the Saints tested him with tight end Juwan Johnson, but the ball was wildly overthrown and intercepted.

This paints a picture of a player who hasn’t seen a lot of competition this season, which may not be entirely fair. For one, it’s not up to Winfield who the opponent throws his way. For another, Pro Football Focus (and other charting services) typically don’t make a note of who’s covering who on plays when the ball doesn’t come their way.

But it also seems obvious that the Packers will be throwing players of a different caliber Winfield’s way this weekend. Assuming they’re healthy (they practiced Thursday in a limited capacity), Allen Lazard and Sammy Watkins represent new challenges for Winfield. Watkins’ deep speed is still solid, and at 6-foot-5 and 227 pounds, Lazard is a physical specimen the likes of which Winfield hasn’t seen this year.

Given the Buccaneers’ vulnerabilities against the run, a Lazard/Winfield matchup in the slot should be of particular interest to the Packers. Lazard on Winfield in an RPO situation should be a win for the Packers whether they go run or pass, and the same should be true if Winfield sticks with Lazard when he inserts as a quasi-tight end.

In any case, Winfield’s 2022 is an interesting example of a talented player taking on a new role, and how the Packers choose to attack could be a big determining factor in their latest trip to Tampa.