With six and a half minutes remaining in Sunday's tilt between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta had a three-point lead and possession of the ball at Tampa Bay's 12-yard line. On first and goal, following a false start penalty, quarterback Desmond Ridder took a shotgun snap with running back Cordarrelle Patterson to his left. On an apparent zone read option, or possibly a planned keeper all along, Ridder briefly put the ball in front of Patterson before pulling it back and dashing out to his left. He made it to the front pylon of the end zone and scampered over the line, with the nearby side judge throwing up the touchdown signal.
There was just one problem for the Falcons, and it was unearthed on a review of the play: Ridder didn't actually have the ball in his hands when he crossed the goal line. That's because hustling safety Antoine Winfield Jr. had, incredibly, covered half the field to arrive just in time to chop it out of his grasp. The eventual ruling was a fumble, and since the ball flew into and out of the end zone, the Bucs were awarded possession at their own 20 on a touchback.
As Buccaneers Head Coach Todd Bowles said after the game, "If everybody plays like that, we'll be fine."
In the end, the Bucs weren't fine on the scoreboard. Winfield's play did keep it from becoming a two-score game, giving the home team a chance to tie the game with 45 seconds left, but the Falcons trumped that comeback with a game-winning field goal of their own. But it was yet another example of the Bucs' rising-star fourth-year safety taking it upon himself to give his team exactly what it needs in a crucial moment.
The impact of Winfield's hustle play can't be overstated, but it can be more closely examined using NFL Next Gen Stats. According to NGS, the Falcons had a win probability of 85.0% before that play. After, it had fallen to 63.8%, a drop of 21.2% points that is massive for a single play. Before the snap, the Falcons had an expected points added (EPA) total of 5.01 on the play. Thanks to Winfield, the play actually ended up with -5.92 EPA.
Before the snap, the Buccaneers had eight defenders in the box and Winfield was lined up as a single-high safety, right in the middle of the field at the one-yard line. When Ridder faked the handoff to Patterson, Winfield reacted with a move towards the line of scrimmage, getting to the three-yard line before reacting instantly to Ridder's dash out to the left. There were two Bucs defenders closer to Ridder's path – Jamel Dean and Ryan Neal – but they were both in man coverage on a Falcons pass-catcher.
At the moment that Ridder begins to run to his left, there were 14.42 yards of separation between him and Winfield. Ridder was running 8.06 miles per hour while Winfield, just getting started, was at 4.62 miles per hour. When the Falcons quarterback reached the line of scrimmage, Winfield had closed the gap to 9.25 yards but was running at an angle to try to cut off Ridder's path to the end zone. By this point, Winfield had already accelerated to 14.89 miles per hour, while Ridder was at 17.30.
When Ridder reached the five Winfield was 4.05 yards away and now matching Ridder's speed almost exactly. He put on one more burst of speed and got up to 20.13 miles per hour. That was the fastest max speed that any Buccaneers player reached on a defensive play in the entire game. Winfield covered a total of 32.21 yards on the play, the most by any Buccaneer defender and more than any other player on the field except for Ridder himself.
Similar to his breakup of a deep pass to Chris Olave in New Orleans, Winfield took a play that the offense had seemingly run to perfection and seemed destined to turn into seven points, and stopped it through sheer determination. On Sunday, it gave the Bucs a chance to win, even if they ultimately failed to do so.