ON MONDAY afternoon, a surprisingly relaxed Andy Reid stood before the media and expressed confidence in his players. He spoke about his defense, using words like "grit" and "toughness" - descriptors that no one would dare apply to Juan Castillo's unit a year ago.
"We've got some young guys that, they've got to grow fast," Reid said, acknowledging that there is work to be done. "But I like the makeup of this football team. They are a competitive, tough bunch."
Much has been made of the "young guys" on the Eagles' defensive side of the ball. Rookies Fletcher Cox, Mychal Kendricks and Brandon Boykin have all, at different times, shown flashes of Pro Bowl potential. A healthy Nate Allen has looked revitalized. Even Brandon Graham and Kurt Coleman have contributed on occasion.
But on Sunday, the best of them was second-year defensive tackle Cedric Thornton. It was not a good day for the Eagles' tackles, but it would have been a lot worse without Thornton.
Thornton played 29 snaps, totaled three tackles, and was the only Eagle who seemed to generate a legitimate pass rush in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's face. He also drew two holding penalties on plays he pushed right past a Steelers lineman.
"After watching the film, I think we did get a little bit of that push we need on Roethlisberger. But not enough - we can do a lot better," Thornton said Tuesday.
Out of Division II South Arkansas, Thornton, 24, is rarely labeled as part of the Eagles' defensive future. That is probably because he was signed as a rookie free agent in 2011 and spent 13 games on the Eagles' practice squad last year before being promoted in December.
But it is also because Thornton has worked his way onto the field the old-fashioned way. Through hard work, he has simply gotten better at a gradual pace. And because of it, he is being rewarded with playing time - roughly 35 percent of the snaps at one of the two tackle positions this year. After playing 20 snaps in Cleveland, he has played 22, 28, 18 and 29, respectively, since.
"Last year told me I have developmental issues with technique and that if I just continued to watch from the sidelines, sit in on the meetings and continue to accept coaching, that I would be a player. And I kept believing that, and they believed in me," Thornton said.
He said his success this year has really been a "mind thing." Last preseason, Thornton's nerves got the best of him. Although he initially made the team out of training camp, he thought he left some plays on the field.
"So I told myself this year's preseason games, I was just going to relax and attack it and approach it as if it was practice, because I knew I was a player," he said.
It worked. Thornton was impressive this August, accumulating 12 tackles and two sacks in limited action in four preseason games, though it was often against backups.
For Thornton, being relaxed and aggressive is the same thing. By nature, he is an aggressive human being. It is why he chose to play football over other sports as a youngster. When he "relaxes," he is at his best. And in the wide-nine scheme, which stresses his natural order, it makes him a weapon.
"That is just the way I am when I step on the field," Thornton said. "That is really the approach that I have to have."
Thornton acknowledged he dealt with confidence issues last season after being designated to the practice squad. But as his coaches have shown more faith in him - most notably Jim Washburn - he has been able to get his mind in the right place.
"You can have the talent and the ability, but you don't think you're supposed to succeed," Thornton said. "I now go out there every day and just accept that I am supposed to be out there with these guys. I am keeping focus on the right things, and thinking that no one is better than me out there."
Thornton seems to have figured something out. For one Sunday, he was the Eagles' best defensive tackle. As he continues to pile up the experience, fans should probably get used to seeing him on the field.
"I just wish would increase, because I definitely want to play a whole lot more. But I know that goes with coaching. Not that I'm complaining about playing 28 plays, but I definitely enjoy being out there on Sundays," he said.