Interview with Antoine Winfield, CB Minnesota Vikings

| July 28, 2011

Tackling is a lost art in the NFL, especially when we’re talking about corners. With that said, there’s one guy who still excels at it and who continues to make some nasty hits. Antoine Winfield of the Minnesota Vikings is a natural tackler. There’s no question. He becomes an extra linebacker who sniffs out run plays, screens, and continues to come up with the big play. At 34 years old, he’s still producing at a top level as evidenced by our recent article on Antoine Winfield which tagged him as 2010′s Most Complete Corner. He may have lost some speed after 10+ seasons, but he brings the power when squaring up and taking down the ball carrier.

I spent some time talking with Antoine about his tackling ability, his thoughts on Leslie Frazier, as well as who he thinks will step up for the Vikings in 2011.

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Steve Wyremski (SW): How was the offseason? What’d you end up spending the lengthened season doing?

Antoine Winfield (AW): This offseason has been great to me. I’m going into my 13th season. A lot of time off to spend with my family and get my body back to where it needs to be and get ready for the football season.
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SW: How are you feeling at this point? Others have said that for guys like you who are 10+ year veterans that they think the lockout may have ultimately been beneficial because you’re able to spend time working on things you want to as opposed to things that the coaches want you to focus in on. How do you feel about that?

AW: Absolutely. [I’ve] had so much time to take care of business and get my body back. Usually, we’re on a schedule where we have the OTAs, mini camps, meetings, and stuff like that. Now, I’m working on my own schedule I can go in and work out any time I want to. I can travel. I’ve done a lot of traveling.
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SW: [Explain PFF]. We published an article called “Antoine Winfield: 2010’s Most Complete Corner.” [Explains what article is all about]. It discusses how you’re one of the most underrated players around. What do you think about that?

AW: That’s a great honor. I’m not a big stat guy. I just go out there and play the game. I’ve been playing this way for years. I go out there [and] study a lot of film. I’m playing against bigger receivers so it’s tough at my position to make plays on the ball. I’m not really good with the interceptions, but I do support the run well. I’m not afraid of contact. The coaches, I have to give them credit too because they put me in the position to make plays.
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SW: There aren’t many guys like you in the NFL right now. It’s very rare to see a guy at corner square up and make the tackles like you do especially, like you said, given your size. Do you agree that there aren’t many solid all around corners and they’re rare in the NFL right now?

AW: It’s rare. Everyone has different qualities. You look at a guy like Charles Woodson. He’s a complete corner. He’s been doing it for a very long time at a high level. He’ll make interceptions for touchdowns. You have guys like Deion Sanders who would go out there and cover. Nowadays, at the corner you have to be able to support the run. A lot of teams are running sweeps and you have fast guys like Chris Johnson who like to get outside. When you get out there, you can’t be afraid to tackle. That’s always been a part of my game ever since I put on the pads at eight years old.
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SW: When you watch some of the tape on you, you play the zone role in the Cover 2. You seem to sniff out the run and screens more than other guys. Why is that?

AW: There are some tips [that I pick up]. Like I said, I watch a lot of film. I’m really a student of the game. It’s really instinct. I have a good feel for the game. When I think a team is going to run at me, I’ll beat that receiver real fast and support the run. Usually, when we’re in that Cover 2 shell, I have the safety behind me so I’m not really worried about the receiver. So if they throw the ball, my safety has to make that play, but if they run the ball I have to get there.
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SW: We talked about how rare it is for a corner to be solid all around in the NFL these days. From your point of view playing in this league for 10+ years, why is it so rare?

AW: The cornerback position is a very difficult position to play. You’re mostly out there one on one with the wide receiver and you always have that camera on you. Your every movement is recorded, so if you’re productive your name will get out there. If you’re not playing well, they’ll show your highlight on Sportscenter every night. You just have to be confident and go out there and play with a lot of confidence. Whatever happens… happens. [You can’t] be afraid to get beat.
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SW: A lot of people say there aren’t many complete corners and tackling is a lost art in the NFL. They say it’s due to the roster size and people being so focused on player value that they don’t want you guys putting on the pads and going through tackling drills in practice in-season and risk getting hurt. What are your thoughts on that?

AW: I agree. To become a great tackler, you have to practice. At this level, it’s kind of hard to do. I can’t see myself running up on Adrian Peterson in practice five or six times every day. I’m not going to last forever. He’s a pretty strong guy.

[Tackling] is so natural to me. I’ve been doing it for so long that I don’t even think about it. I don’t practice it. I just get low and I have great technique.
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SW: You’re a small guy, too, and like you said you’re not afraid of contact. Say you’re going against the Giants and you got Brandon Jacobs … are you afraid to take him on?

AW: No, no. You can’t be afraid. I have great technique and I have great leverage. I’m 5’9” 185 pounds, so I’m lower than them already. The way I tackle, I’m going forward. You’ll never see me hit a guy up at the shoulders. I’m going to put my 185 pounds into his knee or his thigh.
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SW: Looking at your stats in 2010, the catch percentage against you was 70%, which ranked you in the bottom 10 among corners. At the same time, your average yards per catch was around 7 yards per catch. Obviously, you’re tackling helps that. Is that catch percentage a function of how you play your game in that you let guys catch underneath so you can close in on him and wrap him up?

AW: Yeah, in our style of defense you don’t want to get beat over the top. If we give guys 20 to 30 yards a catch, we’re not going to last very long. With the style of defense we play, we play some zone. Like the 3 deep so I’ll give you the little 5 yard hitch or the 10 yard out, but I’m going to come up and make the tackle. Offenses aren’t that patient to go down the field 5 or 10 yards. They want the big play.
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SW: [Explain PFF further]. In 2010, we ranked your Week 15 game against the Bears as your best game of the season. We had it at a +4.2. We thought your pass coverage in that game was solid along with your 3 stops. Do you agree that the Bears game was your best of the season?

AW: I would probably say no. I thought my game against the Eagles. I had like 2 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, [and] a number of tackles. That was my best overall stat game. They really didn’t throw the ball at me that much the Eagles game.

SW: We did rank that Eagles game well, too. Like you said, we thought you did well rushing the passer, but thought you struggled in pass coverage.
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A lot of people say that the reason your yards per catch number is so low is because you played a little over 50% of your snaps out of the slot last year. That seemed like something that increased from back in ’09 when you were dealing with a foot injury, but the pattern seemed to pick up a bit in 2010. Why do you play a significant amount of time inside?

AW: That’s my natural position. Usually when a team brings in three wide receivers, I go into the nickel back position. I’ve been doing that since my freshman year in college. In ’07, we weren’t really that deep at cornerback so they would keep me and Cedric Griffin on the outside and they brought in Chuck Gordon or Benny Sapp at the nickel because they didn’t play the outside. Now that we have Griffin back and he’s healthy and we have Chris Cook who was drafted in the 2nd round last season (he’s healthy), we have two big guys on the outside and I can go back home to my natural position in the slot. You’ll see me a lot there this year.
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SW: Is it a comfort thing for you? Are you less comfortable on the outside?

AW: I love the nickel. The nickel is pretty much like a linebacker. Like I said, I love to hit; I’m a linebacker. I blitz, [and] I got help all around me. That right there is the easiest position for me.
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SW: You posted 42 stops on the season last year which led the NFL among corners. If you compare that to the outside linebackers in the NFL last year, those 42 stops would rank you in the top 10 among outside linebackers. What do you attribute that to?

AW: Oh wow, you [guys] keep all the stats [laughs]. I love the action. Being on the outside is cool, but you’re not really getting that much action if the quarterback isn’t throwing the ball at you. At that nickel back position, I’m playing the pass as well as the run. Any time I get a run read, I can jump in there and stick my nose in. If the ball jumps outside, someone else has to make that play. That’s a natural position for me.
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SW: You just turned 34 years old last month. Are you starting to feel the wear and tear of 10+ seasons in the league?

AW: You know what? I’m not as fast as I was when I came into the league, but I’m a lot smarter. I study a lot more, but my body feels great. I feel like I’m 24. I really do. I have no injuries; nothing lingering. I’ve been working out and in good shape. I’m ready for camp.
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SW: You mentioned you’re not as fast as you once were. Is that another reason why you may play the slot a little bit more because you may not have the speed to go vertical?

AW: Oh yeah. That plays into it too. Guys coming into the league now run a 4.2 [40 yard dash] and they’re 6’4”. I can’t play on the outside like I used to. Like I said, we have Cook and Griff who both are like 6’2” and they can run all day. They’re young [and their] legs are feeling good. I definitely love playing that slot.
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SW: Ty Law played until he was 35 years old. Darrell Green, the ageless wonder, played north of 40 years old. How many more years do you have left in the tank?

AW: I have three more years left on my contract and I would love to play those out. This year, I’ll probably end up starting. Next season, you might see me at safety. You never know. I love the game of football and I’ll play until I’m not producing. Once I can’t help the team win anymore, I’ll hang up the cleats.
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SW: So a move to safety, huh? Would you be happy about something like that?

AW: Oh yeah. I would love to play safety. Put me at free safety, yeah. You get to roam the field and no man-to-man coverage and no responsibility… just go to the ball? That would be perfect for me.
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SW: You’ve been a member of the Vikings since back in ’04. You’ve been to the playoffs with the team 3 times over that span. The move to get Favre back in ’09 was, as we know, a move to get the franchise a Super Bowl and win now and it almost worked. Last year, you guys weren’t as lucky after Favre went down with the injury. How will the Favre years in Minnesota impact the franchise in the near future?

AW: I don’t think it will impact us at all. We drafted [Christian] Ponder in the first round this year and that’ll be a work in progress. We’ll have to wait and see how that goes. I’m sure Leslie Frazier has a plan. We may go and get a veteran quarterback to bring in. (McNabb has been added in a trade) We do have a few holes, though. You never know what’s going to happen with Sidney Rice at the receiver position. (Rice is now gone to Seattle) There are a few guys that I’m sure we’ll be taking a look at. [At] d-tackle, we lost Pat Williams so we definitely have our hands full. We need to make some moves, but I’m confident in the owners and the coaching staff that they’ll do the right thing and get us on the right track.
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SW: Does that personally worry you at all? You have a rookie quarterback coming in, which may limit where you guys ultimately can get. Not many rookie quarterbacks play deep into January or February. At your age and with limited years remaining in your career, does that concern you at all?

AW: Not really. A little bit, but I’m not too concerned. Like you said, it’s tough for a rookie to come in, especially with no offseason. He had no offseason with the team or his teammates. It’s going to be tough for him to get in there and do his thing. At this point in my career, I’d love to win a Super Bowl, but it’s going to take some hard work. I have a lot of good players on my team that I’m really confident in that we can get the job done.
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SW: As you look towards 2011, is there anyone on the team that based on the way they finished up last year, or may no longer have a guy in front of him (like with Pat Williams leaving) that you’re expecting to step up big in 2011?

AW: Yeah. I’m looking for Brian Robison. We might end up losing Ray Edwards at d-end. They’ll be doubled up on the otherside on Jared [Allen] so he’ll be singled up. This guy is going to be a player. [He’s] very athletic with great speed coming off the edge. I’m looking for double digit sacks this season.
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SW: What about Coach Leslie Frazier? He obviously took over as interim head coach and got the job going forward back in January. What’s the feeling with you personally, along with the team, on him taking over as coach?

AW: Oh, very excited about that. He’s been my defensive coordinator here for the last four or five years. I’ve gotten to know him very well. He’s a mild mannered guy [who is] a player’s coach. [He’s] very serious though. You rarely see him smile. Something really good has to happen for him to smile. We have a lot of confidence in him that he’ll get out there and put us in the right position to make plays and [we] expect to win a lot of ball games this season.
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Antoine Winfield may be tacking on the years of NFL experience, but one thing that isn’t fading after all those years is his tackling ability. Yeah, it’s a focus when talking about Antoine, but how could it not be? We’re talking about a 5’9″ guy who is willing to take on anyone. Not only that, but he frequently destroys the ball carrier. He’s the Vikings enforcer.
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  • Joseph Buccellato

    thank you