The rise of the Eagles' defense in 2022 certainly has a lot to do with how the new pieces have assimilated into the scheme – how quickly C.J. Gardner-Johnson has morphed into a ball-hawking safety, the way James Bradberry has given the defense a pair of shutdown outside cornerbacks, the impact Haason Reddick has made on the pass rush, and the performance of Kyzir White as an off-ball linebacker locking it down in space.
All have been difference-makers on a defense that has taken its game to the heights in a 6-0 start.
From an "unsung" perspective, let's discuss the play of middle linebacker T.J. Edwards, who is "unsung" only to those outside of the Eagles organization but someone who is very much understood and acknowledged inside. This is not even a little bit of a surprise to those who have tracked Edwards in this defense, on this team, since the Eagles signed him in the post-2019 NFL Draft period, but it is worth noting as the team returns from the bye week and prepares for a run-heavy Pittsburgh Steelers offense that is likely to challenge him in every way possible as it looks for consistency with rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett at the helm.
Edwards was making steady progress here in the Jim Schwartz defense, but when Jonathan Gannon came on board, Edwards' game really jumped. Right around this time (mid-November, to be exact), the Eagles announced a contract extension for Edwards, who had earned Gannon's trust.
"I think from a standpoint of being in the right spot, playing in the run game, running the defense, he's doing a really good job. He's playing winning football for us," Gannon said of Edwards at that time. "You see how physical he is inside. There were a couple times where they ran iso plays or lead plays and he took on the fullback, knocked him back, and made the tackle. He's doing a good job as far as what I look for in the MIKE, is running the show, being in the right spot, and playing winning football in the run and pass game, and he is doing that."
Since that time, Edwards has become more comfortable in the defense and has played faster, more decisively, more dominating football. His numbers this season – and, for sure, it is not always about numbers but in this case they are so convincing that it's worth noting – bear it out: 55 total tackles, 2 quarterback sacks, and 3 passes defensed in six games. Edwards' last outing jumps off the page – he had 14 total tackles and a pass defensed – a tipped pass that Gardner-Johnson intercepted in the first half – in Philadelphia's pre-bye week win over Dallas. Three times this season, Edwards has been in double digits in tackles and he's the guy lining everyone up and making adjustments and making sure all 11 players are on the same page for each and every snap.
How many busts have the Eagles had defensively? How many times have players looked at each other quizzically after a play to reaffirm an assignment? The mistakes have dwindled down to a minimum. No doubt the coaching has been a high-level reason, but so has the leadership skills of Edwards.
He's the brain of the defense, and Edwards has been on point every week.
"That's my job and I just think everyone understands his assignment and works at it so that when it comes to gameday, we know where we're supposed to be on every play against every look," Edwards said. "It's a team effort in every way. We're only as strong as we are because everyone is putting in the time and the effort to be his best. That's our goal on every play. We don't want mistakes. We're not going to win on every play but we want offenses to earn it."
Also, take into account the task Edwards has had of integrating both Reddick and White into their roles and how, in the case of White and Edwards, the cross-responsibilities of their positions come into play. It has not been exactly without bumps, but they've been minimized each week to the point where Gannon, as far back as the post-week win over Detroit, complimented both players.
Which, in its own way, was a huge kudos to Edwards.
"I think what you're seeing right now is they fully understand where they need to be, why calls are called, where they fit into those calls, certain routes or certain runs they can be very aggressive, certain times they can't," Gannon said. "What I'm really pleased about those guys is they're tackling at a high level right now. They're taking good angles, tackling, physical. When we need them to get downhill, they're downhill. When they can't be downhill, they're not."
In coachspeak, that means Edwards isn't making mistakes. And as long as he continues his climb – and there is every reason to think that will be the case for a player who is as dedicated and as driven to be great as they come – Edwards will be the man in the middle of a defense that just gets better and better as the season grows long. He may not get the attention from the outside world, but Edwards sure does inside the Eagles, and that matters to him.
"It's about these guys, the team," Edwards said. "We have one goal and we're working toward that every week, trying to get that little bit better. I think we're making good progress, but we have a long ways to go."