Rookie Terrell Edmunds has become ironman of Steelers defense
The sibling rivalry between the first set of brothers drafted in the first round of the NFL draft will continue throughout the winter when Terrell and Tremaine Edmunds return home to Danville, Va., and swap stories about their rookie seasons.
Tremaine can talk about leading the Buffalo Bills in tackles. Terrell can counter with playing more snaps than all but six players in the entire NFL.
Ask Terrell for a comparsion, and he’s not quite ready to give one.
“Don’t make me pick between me and my brother,” Terrell said with a laugh this week when he was named the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie of the year. “It’s brotherly love. We’re going to go back and forth about it when we get back home — whenever that is. Hopefully, it’s no time soon.”
Tremaine already is assured of his season ending Sunday courtesy of Buffalo’s 5-10 record. Terrell’s return date to Danville, however, remains uncertain. With the 8-6-1 Steelers clinging to hopes of winning the AFC North, the young strong safety’s season also could end Sunday or it could extend into January for an undetermined length of time.
“We’re just getting all of the pieces together,” Terrell said. “We had a lot of close games this year, but we’ve been coming up short. The season could have been totally opposite right now. It could be joyful and cheerful now, but we didn’t win the games we were supposed to win.”
Edmunds contributed to a defense that played its best game of the season two weeks ago in a 17-10 victory against the New England Patriots yet followed up by allowing 31 points in a three-point loss to the New Orleans Saints.
In those two games, Edmunds received his two highest coverage grades, according to Pro Football Focus, which determined that against the Saints he allowed 14 yards on passes where he was the “primary coverage defender.”
“He’s gotten better and better each ballgame,” defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “He’s getting a feel for what we’re trying to do and his responsibilities – not only his responsibilities but the people around him, and he’s starting to see that pretty good, too.”
That sentiment was echoed by Sean Davis, who played Edmunds’ positions for two seasons before switching to free safety this year.
“He hasn’t hit that rookie wall,” Davis said. “He’s eager to learn, eager to grow, and he just comes ready to work every day. I love that about him. He’s always picking my ear, always active, always talking about stuff. He just has a love for the game, and you can’t really measure that.”
The Steelers entered the draft searching for an inside linebacker to fill Ryan Shazier’s role, but with all of the top ones off the board, they opted to select Edmunds with the No. 28 pick. His selection came 12 spots after the Bills traded up to take Tremaine, one of the top inside linebacker’s in the draft class.
Edmunds was supposed to ease into the defensive back rotation and learn behind nine-year veteran Morgan Burnett. But Burnett was beset by injuries through training camp, and Edmunds moved into the starting spot by default.
“When I first came in, I was putting everything out there and showing … why they drafted me, and I tried to make the plays that came to me,” Edmunds said. “My mindset was always to try to go out and play, whether it was special teams or the defensive side of the ball and put 100 percent into what I did.”
It turned out that Edmunds got a crash course on both units. Only Davis, with 979 snaps, has gotten more playing time on defense that Edmunds, who has logged 918 snaps. Edmunds also has stayed on the field for nearly half of all special-teams snaps, playing regularly on the punt and kickoff coverage and field-goal/extra-point blocking units.
Altogether, Edmunds has played 1,129 snaps this season, which is tied for seventh among all NFL players at any position.
“He’s durable, and he hasn’t missed,” Davis said. “We ask him to do a lot, and he does it. He does a good job. He’s picking the game up well. We’re always a moving target, and sometimes we don’t play things like the book plays it. For a guy in his first year, the only way he knows it is by the playbook, but for him to make adjustments like that and move on the fly is tremendous.”
When Burnett returned to health at midseason, coach Mike Tomlin talked openly of scaling back Edmunds’ playing time, perhaps out of concern for the young safety hitting the proverbial rookie wall. At Virginia Tech, the most games Edmunds played in a season was 14 as a sophomore. In 2017, his final year in college, Edmunds played in 10 games.
If anything, Edmunds’ playing time increased in the second half of the season. He has missed just three snaps since Thanksgiving and has played every defensive snap in nine of 15 games this season.
For the season, Edmunds is fourth on the team with 69 tackles. He has one sack, one interception, four passes defensed and a fumble recovery. Numbers aside, the experience he has gained by playing almost every play of every game has proven to be invaluable for Edmunds in his rookie season.
“He’s going to get better each and every year,” Davis said. “That’s the best thing about it. And he wants to get better. That’s why I love playing with Terrell.”
Edmunds would like to keep playing a little while longer, which would give him bragging rights over Tremaine, whose Bills are only playing for pride this weekend.
“He had a great year,” Terrell said of his brother, who has 109 tackles. “I’m coming along better in my year now. It’s definitely something to build on.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at [email protected] or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.