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Steelers' Terrell Edmunds showcases long-term potential in win vs. Titans

The former first-round pick has had an up-and-down tenure in Pittsburgh thus far, but he appears to be peaking at the right time.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout 2021, especially in recent weeks, Minkah Fitzpatrick has drawn much of the attention from not just NFL offenses, but also from Steelers fans – and rightfully so. Fitzpatrick leads all defensive backs in tackles with 71 and also paces Pittsburgh in tackles with 102. With three games remaining, the 2019 trade acquisition has a long way to go to break Steve Atwater’s record-setting mark of 173 total tackles for a defensive back in 1990, but he’s just three tackles shy of tying the most ever for a Steelers DB.

No, that honor doesn’t belong to Troy Polamalu. Or Rod Woodson. Or Mel Blount.

It belongs to Terrell Edmunds.

Throughout his four years in Pittsburgh, Edmunds has been a polarizing figure. The safety started his career by often struggling to make stops but is quietly building off of a solid 2020 campaign.

Against the Titans this past Sunday, the Virginia Tech alum was unequivocally one of the reasons the Steelers emerged victorious. In fact, Edmunds’ 72.3 PFF grade was his highest of the season and 5th among all Pittsburgh defenders (though it would rank 2nd among Steelers defensive players with 40+ snaps played).

While not perfect, Edmunds continued to excel in coverage while displaying above-average tackling and run defense abilities – nearly putting it all together in this Week 15 clash.

Throughout the afternoon, Edmunds was regularly plastered to Tennessee receivers, whether in man or zone coverage.

This play won’t appear in the box score, but it was one of Edmunds’ most impressive on the day. During this 1st & 10 from the Steelers’ 32-yard line, you can see that Pittsburgh’s defense isn’t entirely set; Arthur Maulet and Cam Sutton discuss the game plan just fractions of a second before Ryan Tannehill receives the snap. Beside the corners, Edmunds skips towards the line, showing blitz, before he ultimately widens and stays on the hip of the tight end in the flat. This play ultimately becomes a completion for nine yards, but Edmunds’ coverage looks rather effortless despite an unconventional approach.

Moreover, Edmunds looked crisp when backpedaling and ranging over to follow receivers. During this 1st & 10 in the early portions of the 3rd quarter and with the Steelers in Cover 2, Edmunds tracks his half of the field well, watching the play develop. Once Edmunds sees that no pass-catchers are in his assignment, he smoothly switches to the deep over route run by Cody Hollister and converges with Fitzpatrick to generate a PBU.

Arguably, Edmunds should have had an interception here, but it’s tough to tell if Hollister knocks the ball free; further, I don’t love that Edmunds let Hollister get inside positioning, as a better throw could have led to Edmunds being boxed out. Regardless, this is a tremendous display of coverage, especially since Fitzpatrick was somewhat late getting over to the route.

I discussed Edmunds taking away the flat earlier, and this was a regular occurrence for the safety vs. Tennessee. The 2018 first-rounder was particularly exceptional when guarding play-action boots, which the Titans ran quite a bit.

During this first example, Edmunds creeps down towards the LOS and closely monitors the play. Once he recognizes that Tannehill still has the ball, Edmunds precisely stays with MyCole Pruitt — the backside tight end in motion. Usually, the players in the flat are a QB’s first read during these PA Boots, but Edmunds’ presence forces Tannehill to read his second progression before dumping it off to Pruitt for a yard.

Here, Edmunds does much of the same. Down in the box, Edmunds treads water and then swiftly flips his hips to blanket Anthony Firkser.

Let’s look at one final example of Edmunds’ coverage prowess. In man, Edmunds is lined up with Julio Jones in the slot. Despite the pick play that the Titans run, Edmunds mirrors the veteran WR until the top of the route. From there, Jones gives Edmunds a bit of a push and backtracks on a comeback, creating separation. However, the space generated occurs once Tannehill decides to throw it deep to Nick Westbrook-Ikhine. Edmunds could have been a bit more fluid out of the break, but this is still a solid job to make Tannehill look away from No. 2.

For as great as Edmunds’ coverage was, his tackling may have been even more spectacular in Week 15.

On two separate occasions, Edmunds totally and independently sniffed out screens, sparking losses of four and three yards, respectively. Explosive, thumping tackles for loss like this in which Pittsburgh’s defense imposes its will is what the Steelers have been devoid of for much of the season.

It wasn’t only on screens in which Edmunds shined, however. During this pivotal 3rd & 11 with 11:29 remaining in game action, Edmunds sits perfectly in his hook curl and stamps Chester Rogers just milliseconds after he catches the ball. Rogers did end up getting the first down, but Edmunds makes this tackle look simple – and forceful – despite it causing challenges for many defensive backs.

Additionally, Edmunds showed a willingness to be the first defender to stop runs. Watch this tackle in which Edmunds stays patient in pursuit and sheds a Firkser block, then ultimately lowers his shoulders to halt D’Onta Foreman.

Likewise, Edmunds tracks Foreman on this gallop and is among the first Steelers to meet him; the safety and Isaiahh Loudermilk help secure the tackle.

Another element of run defense that Edmunds implemented was getting off blocks, a facet that has plagued Keith Butler’s group for basically the entire year.

On this run in the 4th quarter, Edmunds crashes down and stands his ground admirably, combining with Joe Schobert and Robert Spillane for the stop.

For most safeties, playing a run this aggressively can be a death sentence if you can’t get past an initial wave of blockers. Edmunds, though, tears through his man to get an arm on Foreman before Cam Heyward finishes him off.

Some of Edmunds’ efforts didn’t necessarily appear in the stat sheet, but they were certainly meaningful. Pittsburgh has typically seemed slow getting to the edge on tosses this season, but Edmunds engages with the pulling Firkser – Tennessee’s outer-most blocker – to condense this run and force it back inside. If Edmunds didn’t execute contain, Ahkello Witherspoon would’ve been faced with a tough open-field tackle, and this play could have been a big-hitter; instead, it went down as a gain of one.

For as well as Edmunds played in all categories, there definitely is room for growth.

It was not uncommon to see Edmunds employ strange angles to pursue ballcarriers. On this toss, Edmunds tries to attack straight downhill, which leads to a collision with Devin Bush. One could commend Edmunds for trying to make a splash play, but he should widen a tad based on Dontrell Hilliard’s trajectory – the same could easily be said for Bush, too.

I outlined Edmunds absolutely blowing up screens a bit above, but this was not one of his highlights on the day. Once Rogers catches the screen, Edmunds hesitates rather than approaching Rogers head-on, effectively negating Schobert’s tackle attempt and enabling Rogers to accrue nearly 10 more yards.

I appreciate Edmunds playing aggressively on this Foreman cutback, but trying to dive instead of replace Highsmith’s gap is futile at best. Thankfully for the Steelers, Highsmith is able to wrangle Foreman with one arm and stop him in his tracks.

Finally, Edmunds was often quite timid when making tackles. Yes, he did draw first blood several times, but there were numerous other runs where he passively pursued ball carriers. This clip encompasses the difference between Fitzpatrick (in red) and Edmunds (in yellow) opposite the run.

It should be noted that Fitzpatrick has become elite when making these types of stops, so expecting Edmunds to replicate this missile-like pursuit on every down seems a little too lofty.

Overall, Edmunds likely had his best game of the season against the Titans. From lockdown coverage to multiple impactful tackles, Edmunds took great strides, especially relative to his 2018-19 campaigns.

The Steelers declined Edmunds’ fifth-year option this offseason, and doing so likely placed a chip on Edmunds’ shoulder. If the first-rounder can sustain this level of play down the stretch, the Steelers should make it a priority to re-sign the soon-to-be 25-year-old with their estimated $44 million in cap room.

Edmunds won’t necessarily be among the free agent safeties – such as Tyrann Mathieu, Marcus Williams, Jessie Bates, Marcus Maye and more — that command the most attention come March, but his age and growth should make him an under-the-radar, impactful target.