Antoine Winfield Jr. leads Bucs defense that forces three fumbles
Antoine Winfield Jr. singlehandedly kept 11 Falcons points off the scoreboard in the Bucs' 16-13 loss on Sunday. Not only did the safety knock away a pass intended for wide receiver Drake London in the end zone early in the second quarter, forcing Atlanta to settle for a field goal, he caused one of three fumbles by quarterback Desmond Ridder to give Tampa Bay a chance.

The Falcons appeared to have scored the game-sealing touchdown when Ridder ran around left end for 12 yards with 6:30 remaining in the game. The score would have given Atlanta a 20-10 lead and essentially clinched the victory. But a replay showed Winfield knocked the football from Ridder's hand before he crossed the goal line, and the ball rolled out of the end zone for a touchback.

"Most definitely, Winfield kept us in the game from that aspect," said Bucs cornerback Zyon McCollum. "We rally behind him. He's a great player. When you're making those plays and this defense gets takeaways, we're always going to be in games, in close games. We've just got to figure out how to close, especially against a divisional opponent."

Winfield finished with seven tackles, four solo, a forced fumble and a pass defensed. Ball security has been an issue for Ridder, who threw three interceptions in the Falcons' 24-16 loss to the Washington Commanders last week. On Sunday, Ridder lost three fumbles, including a botched snap at the Tampa Bay 1-yard line midway through the third quarter. Just before halftime, the Falcons faced third and goal from the Bucs 11 when Shaquil Barrett sacked Ridder, forcing a fumble that was recovered by cornerback Jamel Dean.

"I've got to do a better job of taking care of the ball," Ridder said. "You know, the one right there on the goal line, I just didn't get in, obviously. You're antsy to get in, you're about 8 inches away. At the end of the day, just have to come up with it.

"There's no magical potion to fix fumbles. It's just strapping up and knowing you have to protect the football. That's what the game is about, protecting the football. The ball is the key. The ball is the issue. So whether it's good or bad, whether the defense is getting turnovers or the offense is turning the ball over, whatever it is, the ball is the issue."

Immediately following the game, the Bucs defense ranked second in the NFL with a giveaway/takeaway ratio of plus-7. It has created 13 turnovers: six interceptions and seven fumble recoveries. Unfortunately, the defense wasn't able to step up when it mattered most. After the Bucs tied the score on Chase McLaughlin's 36-yard field goal with 45 seconds remaining, the game appeared headed to overtime. But Ridder connected with former Gators tight end Kyle Pitts on a 39-yard completion to help set up Younghoe Koo's winning 51-yard field goal as time expired.

"We ran the same play the other way around the first time," Ridder said. "It fell incomplete. Literally ran the same play, and then I was able to complete it. It's a play we've run multiple times. It's a play that we're comfortable with and it's one that obviously we needed in a huge situation, and that's what it was."

McCollum said the Bucs allowed Pitts to get behind their defense. "We were just in Cover 2, he got behind us and Ridder threw a good pass, a good throw," McCollum said. "We probably played a little too close to the line of scrimmage in that situation. We've got to be smarter in that situation."

The defense has played well enough for the Bucs to have more than their three wins this season. Sunday's loss was the fifth time in six games the team has held an opponent to 20 points or fewer. They need to take better advantage of plays like Winfield's forced fumble.

"It was a heck of a play," Todd Bowles said. "Gave us a chance, you know. If we have everybody play like that, we'll be fine. Everybody has just got to lock in and refocus."

Rick Stroud, The Tampa Bay Times, published 23 October 2023