BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Juan Castillo spent nearly three weeks trying to ward off the recollection of last season and his uneven inaugural campaign as Eagles defensive coordinator, preferring to dwell on the benefits of a full offseason with his team and his system.

The first public glimpse of Castillo's group came against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Thursday's preseason opener, when the Eagles' first-team defense allowed a touchdown and a field goal in its only two drives on the field. Castillo no longer needed to talk about what had gone wrong in 2011; he had to explain why the defense seemed to have the same issues it had last year.

"I think it's the beginning of the first preseason game," he said. "I think the way we finished [last season], we didn't finish like that. So that's where it's a little different. We want to go ahead and start what we finished. There's some things we need to work on. That's what we're doing."

With Castillo, work is usually the answer. From the day coach Andy Reid introduced Castillo as his surprise choice as defensive coordinator in February 2011, Castillo's exhaustive work ethic has been cited as a chief qualification for the job. When the defense confounded observers for parts of 2011, there was no reason to fear, of course, because Castillo was in the office early in the morning working on it.

But activity does not always beget achievement, and there comes a point when the results must justify the exertion. The problems that seemed to plague the defense last year - specifically haphazard tackling and unsightly running angles - were present during Thursday's two drives with the starters, even though the Eagles work on both.

So there was Castillo during Sunday's practice, barking instruction and offering encouragement and operating with the enthusiasm of an undrafted rookie trying to make the roster. When the defense made a strong stand against the offense, Castillo reacted as if they had stopped Eli Manning in a December division game. It's clear he is determined to bear fruits from his labor. But there remains the question of whether that labor bears fruit.

"I think where it starts is game one," Castillo said. "That's when it has to be ready to go. It is not really what you do in the preseason, because people have played really well in the preseason and not played well during the regular season. I think the important thing to understand here is what we are doing in practice. All of these things are a combination. . . . The preparation and the hard work in practice are the key that is going to get us ready for the season."

Castillo also cited the uncomplicated schemes of the preseason for why the group might not have appeared as impressive as expected. The Eagles remained vanilla on Thursday, facing a team they will see in two months in the regular season and not wanting to provide much useful game film.

That was a popular answer from some players who were asked whether the problems from the preseason opener were the same issues of 2011. Wait until the defensive scheme is implemented, they said, when matchups are recognized and game-planning is maximized.

"They got a touchdown and a field goal. For not scheming and not game-planning, I think that's OK," linebacker Brian Rolle said. "We can still get better; I'm not making excuses for it. But I'm just saying you see someone score a touchdown against us in the preseason, whoop-dee-doo. We're not game-planning against them."

However, it was clear during practice the last two days that there were two specific areas Castillo wanted to work on. Third-down defense was emphasized in Saturday's practice, red-zone defense in Sunday's practice. And Castillo also harped on the importance of tackling, which he said is the byproduct of muscle memory. The more it's drilled, the better the player will be. When a player hasn't tackled in eight months, it comes more slowly than it does after he spends a few months doing it. That was one of the reasons linebacker DeMeco Ryans was unconcerned about the tackling issues after Thursday's game.

"The bottom line is you've got to want to tackle," Rolle said. "You either want to or you don't want to. But it's not easy."

The general sentiment from the Eagles defense was to avoid overreacting. The effort and knowledge of the system is in place, and the players now expect the execution to follow. Safety Kurt Coleman even said the Eagles' defense is "right where we want to be." Even if 2011 comes to mind for those who watched the Eagles starters, it didn't for those who were playing. And Coleman said regardless of the perception, the improvement over last season will become apparent.

"Honestly, we played well," Coleman said. "It's really just getting off the field. We were in a position to make a play, the defensive scheme is right where it needs to be, and along with that, our defensive plays were very numbered. We didn't do anything complicated, kept it really vanilla. As we get into the regular season, we'll get it spiced up."