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In battle of the birds, Bucs’ ‘ball hawk’ thwarts Falcons

Safety Mike Edwards returns two interceptions for touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
Bucs safety Mike Edwards (32) intercepts a pass during the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs safety Mike Edwards (32) intercepts a pass during the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Sep. 20
Updated Sep. 20

TAMPA — His college career at the University of Kentucky was marked by ball-hawk bookends. Mike Edwards returned the first interception of his Wildcat life, against Charlotte in 2015, for a touchdown.

The last one, too, against Middle Tennessee on Nov. 17, 2018 — his senior day.

“The ball-hawk safeties, the ball always finds them,” Bucs receiver Mike Evans said.

On a tense Sunday afternoon, it found Edwards again — twice. Matt Ryan and the Falcons still were hanging around in the fourth quarter when Edwards jumped fate’s route and delivered the game of his life.

Midway through the quarter, Edwards stepped in front of a Ryan throw intended for Russell Gage, essentially tipped the ball to himself, and dashed untouched for a 31-yard touchdown.

Four minutes later, the blitzing safety hauled in a Ryan pass batted behind the line of scrimmage by cornerback Carlton Davis and strolled into the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown. Before you could say “Grave Digger,” the Bucs had a 48-25 lead and Edwards had the first dual pick-six game of his life.

He became the first player to have two interception-return touchdowns in a quarter since Otis Smith did it for the Jets in 1997, according to Pro Football Reference.

“It’s one thing to be in a position and to have it there, and how many have we seen that go through the defensive back’s hands?” quarterback Tom Brady said. “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.”

Such are the sequences that can not only reverse momentum, but restore confidence. To that point, the Bucs’ brash young secondary had been humbled through the 2021 season’s first seven quarters, suffering a serious injury (cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting’s dislocated elbow) in the process.

Ryan (35 of 46, 300 yards, two touchdowns) had just rallied Atlanta from a 28-10 hole with consecutive touchdown drives. Short on proven corners, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles employed substantial “big nickel” packages featuring three safeties to try to stem the tide.

What followed was the first multiple pick-six game by an NFL player in nine years.

Edwards said he was the nickel back on his first pick when he jumped the Gage route. “Guys were hollering to him, ‘Get outside, get outside,’” coach Bruce Arians said. “He suckered them right into it. He knew exactly what he was doing.”

The second was a gift from Davis, who was blitzing off the edge with Edwards. “I didn’t even see who tipped the ball,” he said. “I saw the ball go in the air and came down with it.”

Edwards was whistled for taunting after the fact. By then, the Bucs could spare the 15 yards.

“You’ve got to be prepared when you come out there and take play by play,” he said. “But I definitely credit my instincts. I’ve always felt like I had good instincts.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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