Posted on Tue, Dec. 06, 2005

[size=18px]In this corner, the top tackler for Vikings is Winfield[/size]

BY SEAN JENSEN
St. Paul Pioneer Press


ST. PAUL, Minn. - Antoine Winfield is as perplexing to his peers as a Rubik's cube.

At 5 feet 9, Winfield is taller than only one teammate - kicker Paul Edinger - and he is the third-lightest player on the Vikings.

Winfield is a cornerback, a position where players are usually heralded more for finesse than force.

But Winfield defies logic and tradition.

"He hits like a linebacker," free safety Darren Sharper said. "He's got a pop to him. He's hitting guys that outweigh him by 80 pounds and blowing those guys up. I asked him once, `Have you always hit like that?' "

That Winfield leads the Vikings with 76 tackles is no fluke. In most NFL defenses, linebackers are the top tacklers (according to NFL.com, 23 of the top 25 tacklers in the league are linebackers), followed by safeties. Partly because they are often isolated on one side of the field, cornerbacks usually lag their teammates in tackles.

But since 2000, Winfield and Marcus Trufant of the Seattle Seahawks are the only cornerbacks to lead their teams in tackles. In 2001, Winfield became the first cornerback in Buffalo Bills history to lead the team in tackles (106). He was also well on his way to doing so last season with the Vikings until a high right ankle sprain Dec. 5 against the Chicago Bears slowed him in the final four games of the regular season.

At the time of his injury, Winfield had 94 tackles, six more than strong safety Corey Chavous.

"People might look at it and say, `You got a cornerback leading your team in tackles, that's not good,' " linebacker Keith Newman said. "But Antoine is a very, very active corner. He's mixing it up inside, and outside, and he runs to the ball.

"If I hadn't seen it for six years, maybe it would surprise me," Newman said. "But I've been on teams with Antoine for six years, and he has been near or at the top of the tackling chart (every season)."

Not that Winfield keeps track.

Winfield jumped to second on the Vikings in tackles after making 12 against the Detroit Lions on Nov. 6. After making nine more against the New York Giants, Winfield surpassed Chavous for the team lead.

Defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell was surprised by the news. Cottrell assumed middle linebacker Sam Cowart led the team in tackles.

"I knew he was up there, but I didn't know he was the leader," Cottrell said of Winfield.

Sharper immediately named Winfield when asked who led the team in tackles. Sharper said Winfield's propensity for snuffing out screens and seizing every opportunity makes him so productive.

"He's like a gopher," Sharper said. "He's at a level where you can't really see him. He just gets underneath everybody, then he pops up and makes tackles. He has an uncanny knack for doing that."

In nickel situations, Winfield slides into the slot, where he essentially becomes another linebacker. Newman lamented that none of the Vikings' starting linebackers plays in the nickel or dime packages. But Newman can't think of a better player to be on the field at all times than Winfield. He has a whopping 69 solo tackles, 19 more than Cowart.

"Antoine is the most underrated player in all of the NFL, and I definitely thinks he's the top tackler on our team," Newman said. "When Antoine misses a tackle, you're disappointed. I would say he would have to be one of the top five or six tacklers in the NFL."

Vikings coach Mike Tice said Winfield doesn't just make the tackle.

"He attacks the ball carrier with great confidence," Tice said. "He has very strong hands and rolls his hips on contact as well as anyone we have."

Newman pointed to Winfield's productivity on special teams as further evidence of his tackling prowess.

Last season, despite hardly playing the final four games of the season, Winfield led the Vikings with 18 special-teams tackles. This season, although he usually only plays on the kickoff coverage unit, he's sixth on the team in special-teams tackles.

"I just try to take advantage of every opportunity I can," Winfield said. "Every time I get a chance to make a play, I expect to make it."

As for the defense, Cottrell said he planned to use Winfield's narrow edge over Cowart (76 to 75) and his teammates.

"I tell you what, I'm going to challenge the rest of them," Cottrell said. " `Hey, you got to catch old 'Toine here. He's killing you guys.' "

When Winfield's not baffling them.