Jenna Laine, ESPN Staff Writer 35d

Bucs safety Mike Edwards makes most of opportunity with pair of pick-sixes

TAMPA, Fla. – After the Atlanta Falcons scored 15 unanswered points Sunday to close within a field goal late in the third quarter, the┬áTampa Bay Buccaneers were left looking for answers.

The first answer came when quarterback Tom Brady found wide receiver Chris Godwin on a corner route for a 12-yard score.

Next up was the Bucs' defense.

With 9:18 left in the fourth quarter and the ball in Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan’s hands, the defense needed to put this one to bed. So on third-and-4 at the Atlanta 31-yard line, backup safety Mike Edwards lined up at nickelback in cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting’s absence.

He jumped a hitch route by Russell Gage on a pass tipped by William Gholston. The ball came out quickly, but Edwards came down with it. He raced 31 yards to the end zone for his first NFL pick-six.

He wasn’t done. After running back Leonard Fournette was stuffed on fourth-and-1 and the Bucs turned the ball over on downs with 4:08 to go, Edwards lined up at safety, blitzed off the edge and caught a pass tipped high in the air by cornerback Carlton Davis at the Atlanta 15. He made his way toward the end zone again, solidifying the 48-25 win.

“You have to be ready for the moment,” Edwards said, flashing a smile and shaking his head in disbelief. “I knew when I caught it, I had to score and take this one back too. And I did. Good feeling, great feeling.”

It was the first time Edwards, who did a celebratory layup at the goal post before being mobbed by teammates, ever had two pick-sixes in a game.

“Never, never in my life,” said the 2019 third-round draft pick out of Kentucky. “My last pick-six was my last game of college against Middle Tennessee State.”

It hadn’t been done in the NFL since 2012 and hadn’t been done in the same quarter since 1997.

Coach Bruce Arians wasn’t pleased with what he deemed a “lackadaisical” effort by the team that allowed the Falcons to pull within three, but he was proud of the way they finished, calling Edwards a “hell of a football player” and presenting him with the game ball.

“I mean he’ll tip it to himself,” Arians joked. “I mean he is just a ballhawk. He always has been since he’s been here. He finds the ball. Guys are hollering to him ‘get outside, get outside!’ He suckered them right into it. He knew exactly what he was doing.”

“There’s certain people I’ve been around in my career that just find a way to get the ball in their hands and make plays with it," Brady said, "and Mike obviously comes up with a lot of those at the end of the game.

“During the game too. He just gets good jumps on the quarterback. He’s in good positions to make the plays, and he makes them. It’s one thing to be in a position and to have it there -- how many have we seen go through the defensive back's hands? -- but he catches it, and that was really great to see. Great way to kind of put a stamp on the fourth quarter like that.”

Edwards got these opportunities because of injuries, including starting strong safety Jordan Whitehead who's just returning from a hamstring injury after missing a month. The coaching staff expressed confidence in Edwards stepping in for Whitehead.

Edwards was in the running for a starting job last season, too, but he got beaten out by the slimmest of margins in training camp by rookie Antoine Winfield Jr.

The difference? One missed tackle by Edwards.

“I got humbled my second year,” Edwards said. “Coming in and not starting. That humbled me, but I definitely needed that to take my game to the next level, to challenge myself.”

He learned multiple roles in Bowles’ defense as the coaching staff prefers them to be interchangeable, and the Bucs began incorporating him into a “big nickel” package, where they’d have three safeties on the field.

After playing the majority of snaps at safety against the Cowboys in Week, 1 Edwards wound up splitting half the nickelback snaps with backup nickelback Ross Cockrell in Week 2. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles also blitzed Edwards off the edge.

“He’s continued to expand his role," Arians said. "He’s earned that right."

The Bucs' secondary, along with the pass rush, fared much better against Ryan than they did against Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, giving up 293 passing yards in Week 2 versus 391 in Week 1. With Los Angeles Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Cooper Kupp -- who racked up 145 receiving yards last season against the Bucs -- up next this week, Edwards may be the best bet at defending the slot.

According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Edwards has surrendered four catches on seven targets for 37 yards and no touchdowns as the nearest defender this season. In comparison, Cockrell, who was targeted 14 times as the nearest defender, has given up 114 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 11 catches this season.

Edwards also has an average of 1.8 yards after the catch per reception allowed, the best among Tampa's defensive backs. For comparison, Jamel Dean’s is 6.0 and Cockrell’s is 4.4.

Still, Edwards’ true strength is clear.

“Ever since I was growing up, people always looked at me as a ballhawk,” Edwards said. “I’ve always been around the ball trying to make plays (and) create turnovers. That is what I tried to do when I came here. From Day 1, I always try to make a point of emphasis to take the ball away. Whenever the ball comes my way, I try to get interceptions or takeaways. I feel like I’m starting to stamp my name, as far as taking the ball away.”

Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans said: “Ballhawk safeties -- the ball always finds them. He does a good job. He’s one of the better catching guys in the secondary that I’ve seen in my career.”

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