PITTSBURGH - In Philadelphia, where defense is worshipped and defensive coordinators can be lionized, performances like the one Jim Schwartz's unit displayed Thursday in a 17-0 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers could generate excitement.
The Eagles defense has outpaced the offense throughout the summer, and Thursday was no different. The Eagles' hopes for a competitive team will likely depend on a defense that forced four first-half turnovers and kept Pittsburgh out of the end zone.
"Personally, and I'm probably biased, but I think that this defense and special-teams unit will probably, if we win, will probably be the reason we win more oftentimes than not," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "That's our mentality. That's what we work for. And I think we have the guys to do it. We have the scheme to do it. We have the coaches to do it. We're working toward that, though."
The caveat should be that the Steelers played without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell, and wide receiver Antonio Brown - all among the best players at their positions in the NFL. And Jenkins emphasized that there were areas the defense must improve. But it was another good day for Schwartz, the defensive coordinator who brought a 4-3, attacking-style defense back to Philadelphia and has his unit looking as if it will be the strength of the roster.
Even though the Eagles' first-team defensive line did not record any sacks, it applied pressure on Steelers backup quarterback Landry Jones to move him off his spot. And the secondary took advantage of wayward passes to halt drives and compensate for the sputtering offense.
"Takeaways can start with your defensive line, and the pressure we've put on these quarterbacks can cause these interceptions," coach Doug Pederson said. "The guys are just making great plays, too."
After the Eagles forced the Steelers to punt on the opening possession, cornerback Nolan Carroll stepped in front of a Jones pass to Sammie Coates and returned the interception 38 yards for a score. Carroll started and appears poised to emerge from the summer with the job he held in 2015 before a season-ending leg injury.
"The way Nolan Carroll started the game and the way he played was great to see," Pederson said.
The defense allowed the Steelers to drive all the way to the Eagles' 8-yard line on the next drive, but it kept Pittsburgh from scoring when Leodis McKelvin deflected a pass in the end zone that Jenkins intercepted with a diving catch. Jenkins, who made his first Pro Bowl last season, said during the week that improving his catching was an objective.
Even when the second-team defense went onto the field, the proficiency remained. The Steelers punted once and threw two more interceptions in the second quarter. When they drove toward the goal line, Eagles cornerback Aaron Grymes leaped for an interception in the back corner of the end zone.
The final interception came 46 seconds before halftime when defensive end Steven Means pressured Jones into throwing a ball that Jaylen Watkins picked off. Watkins is competing to win the third safety job after converting from cornerback to full-time safety this offseason. More plays like that one will help him earn a spot on the 53-man roster.
The four interceptions came a week after the defense forced four turnovers, including three interceptions, against Tampa Bay.
"It's hard to really gauge everything off the preseason . . . but to have seven [interceptions] in two games is obviously a good start," Jenkins said. "There's a lot of other things we need to improve on and work on, but that's one of the positives when we evaluate where we're at at this point."
Even though the defense forced those four first-half turnovers, the Eagles had only 10 points to show for it. Sam Bradford went 14 of 19 for 115 yards while playing the whole first half, but the offense didn't threaten to score. The Eagles sent punter Donnie Jones onto the field four times, and penalties put the Eagles in some tough third-down situations.
But Pederson saw some positives from the offense, such as converting 9 of 17 third downs. Bradford said that the offense "did some really good things" and that he's not concerned that the first-team offense failed to score a touchdown.
"We moved the ball," Pederson said. "The penalties were the biggest thing. Those were the things that killed us. Any time that those things happen, it makes it look like the offense is struggling."
Chase Daniel entered the game in the second half and played better than last week, benefiting from more time in the pocket. He went 10 of 16 for 82 yards.
Running back Kenjon Barner, who is trying to lock down the No. 3 job with Wendell Smallwood injured, is having another strong preseason and bounced through Pittsburgh's defense for a 5-yard score. He rushed six times for 41 yards.
The backup defense picked up where the starters left off, preserving the shutout. That's a score that will satisfy Eagles fans - especially if it can get them to look past the offense.