Photo Illustrated: NFL Week 1
0:53 | NFL
Photo Illustrated: NFL Week 1
Tuesday September 13th, 2016

ATLANTA — Jameis Winston had been telling Austin Seferian-Jenkins to stay ready throughout the Buccaneers’ season opener against the Falcons. It was easier said than done. By the first series of the third quarter, Winston had yet to look Seferian-Jenkins’s way.

Two minutes into the second half, the second-year quarterback relayed the play in the huddle and told Seferian-Jenkins that it was time for a play nearly a year in the making.

“Catch this ball,” Winston said, staring at his tight end as they broke the huddle on first-and-10 from the Atlanta 30.

Winston thought he’d get a Falcons linebacker matched up on Seferian-Jenkins. He was right, and he took the snap out of shotgun and lofted it for the tight end.

In a win over the Falcons last December, this same pass fell incomplete when Seferian-Jenkins tried to cut under the linebacker, but he, Winston and the coaching staff had worked all week on opening up his gait and running past the linebacker. He beat Sean Witherspoon in a footrace and then laid out for a touchdown catch that probably wouldn’t have happened last season.

It was one of two second-half touchdowns Winston threw in Sunday’s 31–24 victory over the Falcons, the culmination of an off-season of work on the deep ball. The timing had been worked out in practice after practice, from OTAs to minicamp and training camp.

But it wasn’t just the pat-and-gos and warmup drills in that Florida heat that deserve credit for Winston’s 281-yard, four-touchdown day through the air. The loyalty last year’s No. 1 pick has inspired among his teammates in Year Two deserves equal credit for Tampa Bay’s progress in the passing game.

The Bucs have seen the work he’s put in to shed 15 pounds from his rookie year playing weight and improve his footwork. They respect his humble approach to the game.

“When it comes to it and I have to make a play for No. 3, I want to make that play every single time because he trusts me to make that play,” Seferian-Jenkins said. “He said ‘Stay ready,’ and I stay ready.”

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When Winston sat down with quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian at the end of last season, the two put deep passes near the top of the list of desired improvements.

Winston was nothing short of dreadful on deep balls in his rookie year, and the Bucs finished last in the NFC South​ at 6–10. ESPN noted that Winston connected on just six of his 25 passes that traveled at least 30 yards in the air last season.

First-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken, whom the Buccaneers hired after promoting Dirk Koetter to head coach, made a point of getting his pass catchers more familiar with Winston’s deep balls this off-season. They worked on fades one day, seam routes the next. They practiced plays down the field and to the boundaries.

The coaches worked to get more consistency in the receiving techniques taught to each position group. They were not only teaching what the deep balls should look like coming out of Winston’s hand, but also coaching the receivers, tight ends and running backs to adjust to those passes in a uniform way.

Winston also dropped 15 pounds in the off-season so that he could play better and limit the jokes about his physique that the Internet had pounced on. His redistributed weight can be seen in person—his collar looked loose after the game, his dress pants baggy—and on the field.

“He’s improved his lower body strength, which has helped develop a consistency in his footwork and drop technique and his ability to maintain an athletic position throughout the drop, throwing motion and release,” Bajakian says. “And it’s helped him move better in the pocket; those subtle movements, whether it’s stepping up or sliding.”

In the season opener, Winston didn’t get much of a chance to show off his progress early on. The first half was a series of short passes and check downs, save for one deep incompletion to Adam Humphries. That was by Koetter's design: Atlanta’s zone defense lent itself to checking down and letting Tampa Bay’s pass catchers do the work.

“We have so many good weapons,” Winston said after the game. “I would be a fool not to use them. That’s all.”

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By the end of the game, Winston had checked down nine times for 77 yards and two touchdowns. One of those scores included a 23-yard catch-and-run by Charles Sims, in which the running back broke four tackles on his way to the end zone.

Winston trusted what his coaches told him. And told him. And told him.

“This man came to us last year and took our offense to be the fifth[-ranked] offense in the whole damn NFL,” said Winston upon presenting Koetter with the game ball. “He’s always getting on my ass about checking the ball down. Well, I think he’s happy.”

The checkdowns helped opened up the deep ball, of course. On the next series after Seferian-Jenkins’s touchdown, Winston again went deep, this time to Mike Evans, who had worked most closely with Winston on his deep balls in the preseason. Out of the shotgun, Winston sidestepped pressure and hit Evans behind two Falcons defenders for a 45-yard touchdown pass.

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One day during training camp, undrafted rookie offensive lineman Leonard Wester was hanging outside the team facilities, waiting for an Uber back to the hotel. Wester didn’t have his car in town, and it was unclear if he’d need it, since a spot on the 53-man roster was far from guaranteed.

Winston rolled up.

“Do you want to pay for a ride, or do you want a free ride?” Winston asked through his window.

“A free ride sounds nice,” Wester replied.

One teammate giving another a ride isn’t a new thing in the NFL, even if the two players are on opposite ends of the totem pole. But it made an impression on Wester, who survived final cuts to make the team’s Week 1 roster.

“He’s always coaching, always inspiring people. He’s always telling people to believe in themselves. He always has everyone’s back,” Wester said. “He’s always keeping everyone upbeat and believing in their abilities. He just has faith in everybody. He’s second to none.”

The team’s loyalty to Winston grew during camp and in practices leading up to the opener. He told receivers when they were dragging that he needed them to run full-speed so they could work on timing. He got on scout-team defenders when they were going through the motions because he needed better looks.

Winston’s teammates have responded to that, along with his own self-criticism. Winston forgot to send a man in motion against the Falcons and came to the sideline offering no excuse to his coaches other than he simply forgot and it wouldn’t happen again.

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Winston will have a smaller margin for error this week against the Cardinals. The Falcons ran a zone defense and got next to no pressure on Winston (zero sacks), but Arizona is sure to bring pressure up front and play man coverage with its excellent secondary. That means more one-on-one blocks for the offensive line, more emphasis on receivers and running backs beating their man, and more accurate throws from Winston.

The preseason consensus was that the Bucs are a wild-card contender this year. A top-five offense and some key players on the defensive side could get Tampa Bay the nine or 10 wins it needs to secure its first playoff appearance since 2007, but this team will go only as far as Winston can take it.

“That’s how you lead us,” shouted one Buccaneer to Winston as he emerged from the showers and rejoined his teammates in the locker room after Sunday’s win.

Winston nodded in the affirmative.

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