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Terrell Edmunds’ rough day in 2021 shows what the Steelers need in a safety

Edmunds has been a great sidekick to Minkah Fitzpatrick, what does that job entail?

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

With the uncertainty surrounding the Steelers second safety spot, with Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin openly stating the team has a starter at every other position, I want to look at that job’s description.

While Terrell Edmunds is often listed as the Steelers strong safety, the Steelers don’t really use their safeties in well defined Free and Strong safety roles. Since the Steelers traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick in 2019, the defense has worked to design coverage around Fitzpatrick, moving him around to key spots in coverage. In 2019 and 2020 that often meant putting Fitzpatrick in position to make big plays, and in 2021 that frequently meant putting him where the defense needed coverage help the most. In both situations, it meant the Steelers’ other safety, Terrell Edmunds was tasked with taking on different roles to allow Fitzpatrick the flexibility the Steelers want.

And that is one side of what I view as the two key roles Edmunds filled for the Steelers. Let’s take a look at those roles, and to do so, I’m going to go to one of Edmunds’ worst games of the season. It can be hard to see a player’s importance in games where they weren’t picked on, but the scope of Terrell Edmunds’ role on the team was in full display against the Seahawks.


Versatility

The Steelers put their No. 2 safety in a lot of different coverage looks: short, long, inside, outside, man and zone. According to Pro Football Focus’ (PFF) tracking, Edmunds lined up all over the defensive formation, with 22% of his snaps lined up as a deep safety, 27% as a slot corner and 38% in the box. He also lined up on the defensive line (4%) and as an outside corner (3%). By contrast, Minkah Fitzpatrick spent 74% of his time in deep safety alignments, with no other alignment accounting for even 10% of his snaps.

Terrell Edmunds shows the versatility to play all over the field and cover receivers from almost any alignment.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 11:04

Terrell Edmunds (#34) is the safety to the top of the screen, he has white socks and black sleeves.

This was a big play for rookie Tre Norwood, tackling D.K. Metcalf short of the sticks on third down, but the opportunity came about when Robert Spillane and Terrell Edmunds collided, leaving Metcalf open in the middle of the field. Multiple errors occurred on this play as the defense passed players off, or failed to, but one of the main jobs of a Steelers safety is to play these short zones and pick up and pass off players quickly while navigating traffic. It’s a basic football skill, but NFL offenses put in serious work to make it more difficult.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 7:25

Terrell Edmunds (#34) is the safety to the bottom of the screen.

Another major responsibility of a Steelers safety is deep zone work. Edmunds was a notable liability in 2019 in deep zone work, something he hadn’t done much of in 2018, but he has improved every year since. Here T.J. Watt gets a hand on quarterback Geno Smith’s arm to mess up the throw, but you can also see how quickly Edmunds closes on the route after he sees Joe Haden get burned by the double move.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 7:22

Terrell Edmunds (#34) is the safety to the top of the screen.

This is one of my favorite defensive formations, a Teryl Austin special, the Steelers modified Cover-3 that has Cameron Sutton dropping deep in the middle on a third and long. The middle of the field is defended by Minkah Fitzpatrick and Terrell Edmunds, and they are responsible for covering a lot of grass. This defense is very effective at forcing teams to throw short of the sticks and hope for a play like this.

Terrell Edmunds gets credit for a missed tackle here, but the whole reason this defense is effective is you don’t need one player to make a solo tackle to stop a conversion. There are three defenders near the ball when Edmunds’ tackle attempt is broken. Minkah Fitzpatrick is a bit slow to the play, and Robert Spillane over runs the catch, nearly colliding with Fitzpatrick as he abandons his responsibility and opens a lane for the first down.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 0:35

Terrell Edmunds (#34) is lined up in the slot to the top of the screen.

Here’s what team tackling done right looks like. Edmunds is blocked, but still manages to make contact and temporarily delay the receiver. Even though the receiver successfully evades Edmunds and Alex Highsmith, Arthur Maulet and Cameron Heyward are there to make the play. Edmunds’ value to this play was fighting through a block to get to the receiver and slow the play down.

This is why coaches constantly preach flying to the ball, because you never know when you are going to be the guy who is needed to end the play. In 2021 fans saw plenty of clips of Cameron Heyward running down receivers while other players jogged, having given up on the play. The difference can be seen in these two plays, and the impact that has on the game.

The Steelers don’t need a safety that makes every single tackle, but they do require a safety that gets to the ball quickly, either to slow the play, buying time for other defenders to get to the ball, or to finish a tackle that someone else started.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 1st quarter, 6:56

Terrell Edmunds (#34) is in the slot to the bottom of the screen.

Edmunds gets credit for giving up a reception on this play, but I like the coverage here. The receiver is trying to split the zone between Edmunds and Joe Schobert. As soon as the receiver heads outside, Schobert turns his attention to the quarterback, and as the receiver cuts back inside, Edmunds breaks on the route and takes it away. Unfortunately a full 6 seconds into the play the quarterback still has the ball and Edmunds gives up a reception on the sideline that wasn’t an easy throw or catch.

If Edmunds doesn’t take away that inside move the Steelers could have given up a big play here, instead, even with 6 seconds of pocket time, the Seahawks come away with a tough sideline catch for 12 yards.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 2nd quarter, 1:01

Terrell Edmunds (#34) is the deep safety in the middle of the field.

Minkah Fitzpatrick is lined up in the slot to the bottom of the screen in this play, and he can fill that spot because Terrell Edmunds can be a deep middle safety now. This play ends up with Smith scrambling before throwing an incomplete pass. You can see the rotations built into the Steelers Cover-3 defense, and how 2nd year player James Pierre was slow to rotate responsibilities, leading to an open receiver.

Versatility to line up in different roles and play at a high level is key to the 2nd safety role, as it allows the Steelers to put Minkah Fitzpatrick in his best roles without overcomplicating the cornerbacks’ jobs.


Problem Solving

I don’t mean outside-the-box thinking here, I’m talking about the ability to help wherever the defense is struggling, and in Week 6, the Seahawks would be the first team to really expose the Steelers run defense. The Steelers solution to the problem was moving Terrell Edmunds down into the box.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 3rd quarter, 4:58

Terrell Edmunds (#34) is in the slot to the bottom of the screen.

Edmunds works through one blocker to take on a second, and the Steelers end up getting bodies to the runner. Edmunds doesn’t beat the pulling tight end’s block, but he does occupy it and set the edge, something the Steelers were struggling with for much of the third quarter.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 3rd quarter, 4:20

Terrell Edmunds (#34) is lined up like an inside linebacker, to the top of the screen.

The very next play the Seahawks attack deep with Edmunds in the box. The coverage is slow to the ball and with missed tackles, the tight end adds 20 yards after contact. The Steelers needed Edmunds in the box to help stop the run, but they couldn’t just take him out of coverage completely either. So they ended up asking him to do both.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, 4th quarter, 13:47

Terrell Edmunds is lined up like a linebacker to the top of the screen.

Alex Highsmith gets to the quarterback here after doing a fantastic job of slowing the pulling tight end’s route. You can see Edmunds’ job clearly here as he is reading run until he sees it is play-action, and then shows burst to break on the tight end that Smith is looking for.

Alex Highsmith’s great play paired with Edmunds’ speed to the ball creates a sack here, as you can see Smith looking for his tight end, seeing Edmunds breaking on the route, pulling the ball down, and taking the sack.

Steelers vs. Seahawks, Overtime, 4:27

Terrell Edmunds (#34) is the safety to the top of the screen.

Even from a deeper alignment Edmunds is focusing on the run game, stepping forward until he sees it is a fake. His bracket coverage on D.K. Metcalf convinces Geno Smith to take off running, and T.J. Watt makes a fantastic play to get to the ball and knock it loose. The Steelers would win this game on the ensuing field goal.

While the Steelers, and their fans, would love to get more splash plays from their second safety, to get the most out of Minkah Fitzpatrick it is more important that whoever is playing Terrell Edmunds’ snaps in 2022 is able to fill a lot of different roles on the defense, and be a player that can help solve defensive problems no matter where they show up. Of course, Terrell Edmunds makes a lot of sense for the job, since he did a great job in 2021 and has improved in every season of his career so far, but if that doesn’t happen, the shoes left for the next safety to fill might not be huge, but they aren’t easy to wear either.