FLOWERY BRANCH – The first time Ray Edwards made big news as a Falcon came when the team announced he would not play in the team’s first exhibition game because of what coach Mike Smith somewhat comically referred to as “a minor procedure.”
That “minor procedure” turned out to be slightly worse than an ear-wax removal. It was knee surgery – disclosed to the public two weeks after the Falcons’ signed him as a free agent. The injury limited Edwards in offseason workouts. It kept him sidelined for the first two preseason games. Most importantly, it generally rendered him as a nothing-special player in a season when he was supposed to be a something-special difference-maker for a team trying to win a playoff game.
“Yeah, it bothered me, because I know how hard I train and how hard I play, and I was not getting the numbers I wanted to get,” Edwards said Tuesday.
We can debate whether the Falcons should have thought twice about pursuing a player they knew had knee surgery – the specifics of which Edwards still won’t get into – and whether they were fully aware of how long this rehabilitation process might take. Even Edwards acknowledges, “As far as exploding off of it, I’m still not 100 percent. I don’t think I will be until [the offseason] when I go back to Minnesota to train and get back my strength in my legs that was lost in the surgery.”
But 14 games into the season, the Falcons are staring to get something out of their investment. Edwards has been in on two sacks in the last two games against Carolina and Jacksonville. That coincides with when he started to feel stronger. “I feel like I’m getting my legs back underneath me,” he said.
December is a good time for an NFL defense to get a boost. If the Falcons’ pass rush continues to improve, it makes their chance for success against New Orleans on Monday night and later in the playoffs significantly better. An effective Edwards and John Abraham up front, along with a rising Sean Weatherspoon and a healthy Brent Grimes, give this defense play-making potential that it has lacked.
Now, Edwards (and coaches) will tell you that he has been effective against the run all season. (Quoting: “I don’t think anybody at my position is as good at stopping the run as me.”)
But when a team signs a player to a $30 million free agent contract, there’s an expectation that you won’t have to go looking for him. He’s supposed to be a 100-watt bulb, not a tea light.
Edwards has 3½ sacks, 5 “quarterback hits” and 5½ “hurries” this season. Last year in Minnesota, he had 8 sacks, 13½ knockdowns and 14½ hurries.
When asked about the criticism, Edwards laughed. “Y’all are very cut-throat,” he said. “But I’m not worried about it. You don’t pay my bills or cause me any grief or unhappiness. It is what it is. That’s your job.”
If we haven’t seen the Edwards that had 16½ sacks the last two years in Minnesota, there are two good reasons: 1) The knee injury, which he said came from “the usual wear and tear.” (He denied it had anything to do with his boxing exhibition during the lockout); 2) His transition to the Falcons’ scheme, which he termed “totally different” from the Vikings’.
Edwards rarely missed a defensive snap in Minnesota. He is used in a three-man, defensive-end rotation with the Falcons. The Vikings’ defensive scheme, he said, was more “straight forward.” The Falcons tend to use more stunts up front.
Abraham said, “Everyone’s still learning how to play with each other.”
He also referenced the after-effects of a knee injury, as did linebacker Mike Peterson. “I could just tell from being around ballplayers and watching him that he wasn’t 100 percent,” Peterson said. “He was hurt. He’d make one play, but then he’d favor the knee. But you can see he’s getting better.”
It follows that the Falcons’ defense is getting better. In December, that means something.
By Jeff Schultz