Antoine Winfield raced to cover the receiver running toward the sideline, sliding parallel with John Skelton as the Arizona quarterback rolled out right with the Cardinals facing fourth-and-2 at the Minnesota 18-yard line.
Skelton decided to keep the ball and run for the first down, and Winfield read the play perfectly. He left his man, fullback Reagan Maui’a, at just the right time, burst forward and delivered a jarring hit to stop Skelton short of the marker. Teammate Brian Robison arrived next to help finish the tackle, and the Vikings got the ball back after Winfield was credited with the sack.
“That’s an incredible play by a great pro,” coach Leslie Frazier said.
Healthy again, the 35-year-old Winfield is defying his age. Minnesota’s defense is all the better because of it.
“It’s good to see him play at this level,” defensive end Jared Allen said. “We give him a hard time that he’s still old, but obviously you see how he plays. He is a staple of this defense. There are things we cannot do unless he’s on the field. It’s a privilege to play with him. Since I got here, he’s been a guy I’ve looked up to as far as the intensity he brings to the playing field. It shows up on tape week in and week out.”
Winfield has two of the team’s four interceptions this season and is second on the Vikings in three other categories with 61 total tackles, seven passes defended and seven tackles for loss. Those big hits in the backfield have long been his hallmark, and this year has only brought more.
That stop of Skelton against the Cardinals on Sunday during a 21-14 victory that improved the Vikings to 5-2 was the perfect example.
“In that situation, I didn’t feel like there was another defender around me, so if he was going to run he was going to get the first down anyway,” Winfield said. “So I felt like we’d take our chances with him throwing the ball to the fullback. Fullbacks aren’t used to catching balls, so I played the percentages.”
Percentages suggest Winfield can’t keep doing this for long, but he’s playing as fast and strong as he had in years, like “a little rookie running around,” said outside linebacker Erin Henderson.
“Who’s this little guy sticking his head in anywhere? But it’s fun to watch him, and that’s how he plays. That’s his mentality,” Henderson said.
Defensive backs coach Joe Woods, in his seventh season with the team, said he believes Winfield is playing as well as he has since Woods was hired in 2006. Woods described in awe on Tuesday after practice one of Winfield’s highlights from the week before at Washington, when he knocked over the tight end, Logan Paulsen, trying to block him and pushed wide receiver Brian Banks out of bounds for a 1-yard loss. Woods received a wowed text message the next morning from a friend of his on the Redskins staff who had just reviewed the video.
“He’s a beast,” Allen said, adding: “I know he’s been hurt the last couple of years. So everybody doesn’t get to see a full season of him. But he plays so hard.”
Winfield’s presence was lessened in two of the last three years by injuries. He played in only five games in 2011 because of a neck problem and then a broken collarbone. In 2009, he was hampered by a damaged right foot and missed six games.
But he spent extra time during the offseason working on his conditioning, particularly his explosiveness, and he’s been in prime form all year. Players, coaches and anyone else around the game have remarked often that Winfield is playing like he’s 25, not 35. Chances are he won’t get to 45, but he’s leaving his career path open-ended.
“The coaches are taking care of me during the week. Sometimes the legs feel a little heavy, but I feel great,” Winfield said. “I’m taking it year to year. My body feels good. So we’ll see.”