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Kevin Gorman: Competition makes Steelers stronger at strong safety

November 30, 2018

Terrell Edmunds was wrapped in a towel and getting ready to hit the hot tub, his personal preference for taking care of his body’s soreness on a short week for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The NFL’s midway point, counting the preseason, is the equivalent of a college football season. And the rookie strong safety, counting special teams, has played more snaps (645) than any Steelers player through the first eight games.

That statistic would make it seem like the Steelers are thrilled with their first-round pick, but Mike Tomlin didn’t mince words Monday when he said it wasn’t by design -- and might not continue much longer.

“Edmunds has done a nice job,” Tomlin said, “but the totality of his play largely has been because of the lack of availability for Morgan.”

The Steelers signed free agent Morgan Burnett to a three-year, $14.35 million contract in March -- before they drafted Edmunds -- and had every intention of starting the veteran at strong safety this season.

But Burnett missed the majority of training camp with a hamstring injury, giving Edmunds ample opportunity for playing time. And Burnett was sidelined by a groin injury and missed four of the first seven games, forcing the 21-year-old Edmunds into a starting role.

Ready or not.

“Really, it’s how coach feels that week,” Edmunds said. “That’s probably why coach is saying it’s a competition. Any week, somebody else can start because we have good players in the secondary. If Morgan’s not doing the best, or I’m not doing my best in practice, that man isn’t going to start.”

Edmunds played every snap the past two games, and Burnett played 23 snaps against the Browns and 27 against the Ravens. Where Edmunds had four tackles (two solo) and a pass breakup at Baltimore, Burnett had five stops (three solo). Both drew a pass-interference penalty, so their performances were pretty much a push.

But it’s no coincidence the Steelers have played better the past two weeks with Burnett back. Edmunds said the communication is better since the 1-2-1 start, and Tomlin has to feel more comfortable starting an eight-year veteran than a 21-year-old rookie.

Most of all, Burnett allows the Steelers to play more sub-package football, which has become their base more often than their traditional 3-4 set. They often employ the nickel defense with cornerback Mike Hilton but against Baltimore relied mostly upon the quarter defense in which Burnett serves as an extra safety.

“As Morgan gains his footing from a health standpoint, I am interested in playing both guys,” Tomlin said. “A lot of exposure to young guys isn’t always good for their growth and development because with exposure comes negativity.

“Edmunds has done a nice job, but I am not going to forget why he’s in the lineup down in and down out, and that is because Morgan has been hurt. As Morgan gets healthy, I am open to infusing him back into the lineup and watching those guys compete and letting both guys play and, hopefully, getting productive play out of the position. That is my mentality but that is no secret.”

It also is no secret the Steelers have demoted another former first-round pick, Artie Burns, in favor of journeyman Coty Sensabaugh. Edmunds is only halfway through his first NFL season, and Tomlin’s challenge could be designed to get more out of Edmunds or a sign of a deeper concern for Carolina quarterback Cam Newton.

Edmunds has given glimpses of his athleticism and potential. Last week, he showed off his 41 ½-inch vertical leap inside the locker room at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex by jumping from a standstill position to push up a piece of the 12-foot drop ceiling with the palm of his hand.

Edmunds also showed it off against the Ravens, leaping high to break up a pair of pass -- even though one drew a flag for contact. As the game is slowing down for him, he is starting to show he can play at full speed.

“I’d definitely say that just being in those situations, you’ve got to make the play,” Edmunds said. “Even when I didn’t make the play, those situations just develop you more into a football player. That’s what I’m trying to become, that pro player week-in, week-out and put my best stuff on tape.”

Edmunds sounded like someone who welcomes the competition. Tomlin would like to see it bring out the best in both Edmunds and Burnett, knowing that the defense will be better for it.

Either way, the Steelers are going to be stronger at strong safety.

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