Winfield has been a veteran leader on the Vikings defense since he was acquired as a free agent in 2004, but this year he's been a leader on the stats sheet as well. He's also getting recognition around the league as the NFC Defensive Player of the Week.
Winfield hasn't been regarded as a shutdown corner around the league, but his many and varied skills are getting people to notice that he's a solid all-around football player.
"Watch Antoine Winfield on a sweep," said head coach Brad Childress. "He is typically going low and taking on a guy that is 150 pounds bigger than he is. You'd better not hesitate and you'd better be able to let it go. That's what you look for in football players."
At 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds, Winfield has been labeled as one of the best "pound-for-pound" hitters in the league. His tackling skills have been on display for years, but when he put on a show Monday night, his abilities were shown in front of a national television audience.
"I think it's just a God-given ability. I've been doing this since I've been playing football. It's nothing that you can practice. I just have it," he said of his tackling prowess, and that includes beating 300-pounders to make the play. "I try to mix it up. Sometimes you'll see me where … I cut the linemen so I bounce the ball outside or there are other times I'll dip under a lineman or fullback and try to make the tackle that way. Very rarely will you see me hit a guy high. I'm too small to be doing that."
That was Winfield in the right place at the right time Monday night to grab a blocked field goal out of the air and return it 59 yards for a touchdown. Instead of the Vikings going down 10-0 to the New Orleans Saints, they were tied 7-7.
"It's good luck that the ball bounced that way, but when you rush a field goal you always have somebody there that's ready and be able to take the ball and scoop and score," Childress said.
Winfield always seems ready to pick up the ball and score.
He did it against Carolina when he came on a corner blitz, hit Jake Delhomme from the blind side, caused the fumble, recovered the fumble and returned it 19 yards for a touchdown, calling that the most exciting play of his career.
He nearly did it again on Monday night when he hit Drew Brees on a corner blitz, caused a fumble and recovered the fumble. This time, however, he was tackled at the 5-yard line while trying to maintain his balance and get into the end zone.
For some, that was the more impressive blitz because he disguised it so well. On the opposite side of the field from pass-rushing defensive end Jared Allen, the Saints had two tight ends to "max protect." Winfield was responsible for tight end Billy Miller if he went out for a pass. When the tight end stayed in to block, Winfield acted like he was going to stay in his zone, then made a dash for the quarterback.
"Just his burst of speed alone I think surprised them. That was just an incredible play," Allen said. "I don't really care how (the quarterback) gets on the ground as long as he gets on the ground and we get points out it."
Said Childress: "I think that Billy Miller was trying to slow release that to see if he was coming. If you go back and evaluate it you see him settle like he's covering. Billy sort of lets his mental part get to the point where he's ready to get off, at which time Antoine pulled the trigger. It was a good disguise, which you work on. When you know you're going to blitz it doesn't do much to bring it right away, at that time. As you can see it was good, he obviously rushed the quarterback. He accelerated and was able to knock the ball loose. He has that ability, and he's done it a couple of times this year with great disguises and the ability to get to him."
With a blocked field goal return for a touchdown and the fumble recovery he had following the only sack of Brees, Winfield was responsible for two of the Vikings' three touchdowns on Monday night.
Childress said Deion Sanders was one of better cornerback blitzers in the league, but "it's not something that people major in." The main thing is disguising it.
Vikings quarterback Gus Frerotte said he has seen a lot of corner blitzes in his day, and one of them in Denver particularly stood out to him. Not surprisingly, it came from Frerotte's blind side.
"I remember in Denver one year I took a huge hit and wasn't expecting it. I'm looking to the right, the guy hits me from behind and the helmet goes flying. Those things happen sometimes; it's part of the game," Frerotte said.
It's definitely part of Winfield's game, but in his case it's just one part it. He leads the Vikings with two fumble recoveries, is tied for the team lead with one interception, is tied for the team lead with three special teams tackles and leads the team with five passes defensed.
He has four takeaways in the last four games and has 20 since joining the Vikings in 2004. Oh, and he also is tied for the team lead this year with two sacks, a fact not lost on last year's sack leader, Jared Allen.
"He's flying around and making plays. That's two games where he darn-near single-handedly won it for us," Allen said. "It's fun to be on the field with a guy who's making those kind of plays. I told him, ‘Dang, I'm used to making those kind of plays. You're stealing them from me.' It's cool. He just brings that energy, that excitement and not to mention he's a cool dude, he's humble about it, he works hard. It pays off. I love it. I'm having so much fun. That game was so much fun on Monday night, the atmosphere reminded me of a playoff game."
It also was a chance for Winfield to improve his status in the league with the football world watching.
"Usually people don't see me play. That was a great stage to have that kind of a game. I got so many phone calls, it's unbelievable and I'm getting all this national attention," he said.
But he remained humble when asked if it helped his Pro Bowl aspirations. "Really I'm not looking toward that right now. That's a long way off. I really don't control that. … That was one of my goals every year, to go to the Pro Bowl, but I don't really look forward to that since it's out of my hands."
The Lions were 1-12 in 2001 and beat the 5-8 Vikings, 27-24.
"I personally worry about a team like this from the standpoint of playing loose, playing free, playing easy. Everything to gain, nothing to lose," Childress said. "You worry about those wideouts that are explosive wideouts."