The Pittsburgh Steelers won't just be getting a couple of key players back from injury Sunday. They'll be getting their defensive mystique back.
People are intimidated by safety Troy Polamalu, despite that cuddly persona he has created for endorsements. People are downright afraid of linebacker James Harrison, who spends too much time in commissioner Roger Goodell's office to do any endorsements.
The Steelers have other good defensive players, but Polamalu's ferocity and Harrison's borderline personality disorder are at the heart of the team's success.
The Eagles' vastly improved defense is a big reason they are 3-1 after starting off 1-3 last year. But it is not a defense with mystique. Not yet, at least. The Eagles have some good players, but none with the immediately identifiable personality of a Polamalu, Harrison, Brian Urlacher, Ray Lewis, or Osi Umenyiora.
The last Eagles player with that kind of aura was on the field Sunday night. But Brian Dawkins was having his number retired, not creating havoc in the New York Giants' game plan. Since Dawkins' departure after the 2008 season, the Eagles have had a handful of good defensive players - Trent Cole, Asante Samuel, Jason Babin - but no one who really kept opposing quarterbacks from getting a good night's sleep on Saturdays.
That is unthinkable in Philadelphia, where Reggie and Jerome and Clyde and Seth and Andre and Trot and Dawk are all one-name-only fan favorites.
Four games into the 2012 season, the Eagles defense is miles better than it was last year or, for that matter, the year before that. Opposing offenses have scored just 69 points on Juan Castillo's crew, and a few of those scores resulted from short fields created by turnovers or poor special-teams play.
There are still wobbly moments. If a miscommunication is going to free up Larry Fitzgerald to score, which happened in Arizona two weeks ago, it doesn't help if one player waves his arms and shows up a teammate. And if the Giants had played it safe, they might have had a 40- to 45-year-old field goal try Sunday night instead of a 54-yard attempt.
But that's quibbling. The league is so tilted toward offense right now that a merely respectable defense is good enough to contend. This Eagles group can be better than that.
Several factors contribute to the improvement from last year. The biggest is the heart transplant wearing No. 59.
DeMeco Ryans, the new middle linebacker, has kick-started the developing personality of this defense. Ryans knows what he's looking at on the offensive side, knows how to position his teammates, and can follow through by making big plays when called upon. He is, in other words, everything this defense lacked at this vital position last year.
Experience has helped safeties Kurt Coleman and Nate Allen, but so has having the solid Ryans in the huddle. Mychal Kendricks is a rookie playing beyond expectations at strong-side linebacker, and Ryans is a steadying influence on him, too. And while the defensive line remains an aggressive, all-out pass-rushing unit, Ryans brings a sense of order and gap control to the second level.
"There's definitely a level of trust out there and I think we have that this year," Cullen Jenkins said. "You're confident the guy next to you or the guy behind you is going to take care of their assignment."
"I mean, he's our quarterback on defense," Kendricks said of Ryans. "He brings the guys together, you know, when we huddle up and he makes sure we're cool, calm, and collected."
The Eagles aren't even getting to opposing quarterbacks as much, averaging 1.75 sacks per game compared with 3.1 last year. But they also aren't being gashed for as many big plays, through the air or on the ground. That's not all Ryans. The cornerbacks seem better suited with Samuel gone. The safeties aren't getting caught out of position as much. Kendricks is a better tackler than any of last year's outside linebackers.
But Ryans is literally and figuratively in the middle of it all, and it has made a difference.
"We have three wins," Ryans said. "That's the biggest number for me that matters. It's the wins. The sacks and the stats are nice to have, but wins are a lot nicer. People talking about us or not talking about us, it really is not something we are worried about. We focus on winning."
Win and eventually a mystique forms. Kendricks or fellow rookie Fletcher Cox or one of the safeties or Ryans himself could become one of those fearsome defenders whose names cause sweat to bead on the brows of quarterbacks and offensive coordinators.
With Polamalu and Harrison expected back, the Steelers have a couple of them. The Eagles don't. Not yet. But then, there's no better way to make your name than by outshining those stars in their own stadium.