Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs Look to Get 'Ballhawk' Mike Edwards More Work

After rookie Antoine Winfield, Jr. won one of the starting safety spots in camp, second-year S Mike Edwards had to wait for playing time, but his role may be growing larger as he continues to make plays

In the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 45-20 win in Las Vegas last weekend, second-year safety Mike Edwards was on the field for 13 of his team's 65 defensive snaps, including two erased by penalties. That was enough time for Edwards to snare one interception that ended up not counting due to an unrelated penalty and to tip one pass that led to an Antoine Winfield interception that did count.

That's an efficient use of one's time at work.

In fact, Edwards has played 65 defensive plays this season, including ones with penalties, and has picked off two passes (plus the one that was erased) and broken up three passes. It's no wonder that after Sunday's game in Vegas Head Coach Bruce Arians said the Bucs needed to get Edwards on the field more.

"Every time Mike gets in the ballgame he makes a play," said Arians. 'It's like, 'Hey, let's get him in the game!' He got the interception and it got called back. But then he got the tip that made Antoine get the interception, so Mike is the playmaker. And when it's a passing situation, we have to have him on the field."

The problem, of course, is that the Buccaneers have a number of other playmakers in the secondary, not to mention a bunch of effective pass-rushers who need a lot of playing time, and you can only play 11 at a time. Call it a good problem, one that Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles and his staff are trying to solve by coming up with different personnel combinations, ideally ones that play to the strengths of each player. Some of those have involved having all three of their young and aggressive safeties – Edwards, Winfield and Jordan Whitehead – on the field at the same time. The versatility of those players, particularly Winfield, makes that a solid option.

"It all depends on the game plan, who we're playing that week, how our matchups go and how the game plan installation goes," said Bowles. "Mike is playing a lot more, obviously. We love Jordan and we love Winfield, as well. You try to combine those three every chance we get, [but] the problem is we've got a front seven that plays well, also. It's hard to take somebody off the field and put somebody else in. We keep tinkering with it, keep tweaking it and try to find the right combinations. Hopefully it works every week."

The Buccaneers drafted Edwards in the third round in 2019 and he had an intermittent run as a starter, with a lot of action early in the season and then a little more at the end after Whitehead landed on injured reserve. Edwards also played one game in November as the slot corner against New Orleans.

In April, the Buccaneers used their second-round draft pick on Winfield. In August, Edwards and Whitehead took the vast majority of the first-team snaps during training camp but Winfield's work on the practice field was too good to ignore and the rookie got the call to start alongside Whitehead as the season began.

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't tough because everybody wants to be the starter [and] everybody wants to be out there having the most reps they can play. At the same time, I'm happy for him – he's performing really well. I think whenever I get my time, I'm going to go out there and shine – which I've been trying to do. I try to make the best of my plays and whenever I get in – if it's one snap or 50 snaps – I'm trying to make the best I can of each snap whenever I play."

The first time Edwards got a chance to play on defense was in a Week Three win in Denver, in which nickel corner Sean Murphy-Bunting left with an injury and Winfield moved into the slot. Edwards promptly contributed the game-sealing interception.

Still, Edwards didn't see any defensive action in the Bucs' next two games against the Bears and Chargers. It was in Week Six that the tinkering began, as he got 10 snaps against the Packers and then, as mentioned, 13 more against the Raiders.

"Mike has still been great for us," said Bowles. "Mike is a ballhawk, we understand that, and we try to get him in every chance we get. It says a lot about Winfield, but their relationship is very strong, they talk to each other all the time and make each other better. That says a lot about Mike's maturity from Year One to Year Two."

One option is to put Edwards onto the field and don't remove any of the other defensive backs, including the nickel corner. That turns a nickel formation into a "dime," with three safeties and three corners roaming the grass. This is most likely to be deployed against four-receiver sets, which aren't particularly common. While the Buccaneers do have the dime as strictly defined (six DBs) in their defensive playbook, they actually haven't used it much to this point in 2020. In fact, they've only run three defensive snaps with six DBs on the field together all season, all of them coming in Week Six against Green Bay.

View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 8 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.

Otherwise, the majority of Edwards snaps so far have come in a nickel with Winfield in the slot, as he had 42 snaps in that Denver contest. But he has also seen action in three other nickel combinations, plus two snaps in base defense, one each replacing Winfield and Whitehead.

Most of it has worked, too. The Buccaneers have given up an average of 3.18 yards per play with Edwards on the field. Those three dime snaps against Green Bay only gave up a total of 11 yards, or 3.67 per play. Edwards has been on the field for three nickel snaps without Winfield and all three led to incompletions.

"Coach Bowles calls a great scheme [and] calls great plays – great defense against offense," said Edwards. "He puts me in the right spots, and I give him credit for that. Also, I just try to take pride in reading film, reading what guys like to do, honing my craft and playing the ball."

And if the Bucs want to use more dime, which guarantees him playing time, Edwards won't complain. More likely, they'll continue to find ways to package those six DBs in different ways and give the opponent looks they haven't seen before.

"I love that package," said Edwards. "I think DBs love [the] dime package. We can do a lot of things, we get to play different roles. We have a safety playing linebacker, you've seen J-White – he played D-Line for one play or whatever. We mix it all up and we can make a lot of plays out there. Like I said, we play different positions and it kind of confuses the offense, confuses the quarterback because you don't know what guys are doing. [They are] disguising a lot and playing different positions."

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