Ford: Eagles climb with their defense

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Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.

The NFL is being kind enough to let the Eagles begin their climb up the staircase of the 2016 regular season with challenges they can take one measured step at a time.

It only required putting one careful foot ahead of the other in the opening game to surmount the Cleveland Browns, a team that must view its own season staircase as "Robert Griffin and the Tower of Doom." People expect the Browns to finish somewhere around 3-13, but, go ahead, you find three wins on their schedule. The Titans? The Dolphins? The Bills? Maybe, but they won't be favored. Three wins is going to be an accomplishment for the Browns.

Well, that's Cleveland's problem and the Eagles will no doubt have enough of their own to worry about soon enough. As much optimism as was generated by the 29-10 win in the opener, it has to be tempered with the difficulty of the transition the Eagles are attempting and with the fact that the Browns really stink and were still in the game midway through the third quarter.

Still, you take what you can get, and while they wouldn't admit it out loud, the Eagles will gladly take the Chicago Bears for their next test and first road game of the season. Yes, it will be with all the attendant Monday Night Football hoopla in Soldier Field and, yes, the Bears will be trying very hard not to fall into an 0-2 hole to start the season, but as stair steps go, this one isn't that high. They could still trip, but the game is there to be had.

After this game, the training wheels come off and the Eagles head into the big boy portion of their schedule, so they should take advantage of what is in front of them right now. There will be opportunities for rookie Carson Wentz - Chicago has injuries to its starting right cornerback, starting strong safety and backup strong safety - but the real chance to grab another win will come on the Eagles' defensive side of the ball.

Wentz's debut was promising, and maybe even more than that, but it was the defense that was truly impressive from start to finish on Sunday against the Browns. Griffin didn't have anyone to throw to, and didn't have much time when he did. The quarterback finished with a 55.0 quarterback rating, the lowest recorded on the opening weekend of the season, going into Monday night's two games. Griffin completed just 12 passes and looked like someone trying to dodge through Frogger traffic all afternoon.

What really makes the defense of coordinator Jim Schwartz work when it is at its best is entirely counter to the philosophy of Jim Johnson, the legendary coordinator under Andy Reid whom a lot of fans invoke when they express their hopes for the current team. Johnson loved to blitz the quarterback. Schwartz would prefer never having to do it.

In Schwartz's opinion, it is simple math. If you can get sufficient pressure with your four linemen, that leaves seven defenders to worry about everything else. Each time you take one of those seven away from the everything else, the defense gets a little less magnificent. So, as they did on Sunday, the Eagles will blitz only sparingly most of the time.

"I thought we did a decent job of getting pressure with the four-man rush," safety Malcolm Jenkins said. "When you don't have to blitz, it muddies the picture for the quarterback. There are more bodies to throw between and still be effective. It's a lot better for the defense."

Schwartz has the luxury of a solid starting front in Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan and Connor Barwin, and he mixed in Vinny Curry and Beau Allen and also gave 12 snaps to rookie Destiny Vaeao.

"The D-line did get after them a lot, but you also attribute that to great coverage downfield," said middle linebacker Jordan Hicks. "He was trying to do his progressions, but a lot of his reads were gone, taken away. Then he's used to making plays with his feet, but our guys were getting to him."

The defense was credited with three sacks and five quarterback hits, distributed almost equally among Graham, Cox and Barwin. It was good week, but against the Bears, and a far less mobile Jay Cutler, the Eagles will be hunting down a quarterback who was sacked five times and hit another 13 times in his opener against the Houston Texans.

Robert Griffin III had a bad day, but Cutler's might have been worse. He completed just 16 of 29 passes, threw an interception and the Bears scored only 14 points. Not as bad as 10, but among the bottom-feeding offenses from the opening week.

Houston has a top 10 defense, or at least a defense was ranked among the top 10 in most of the important categories last season. The Eagles aren't quite there yet, but they could be on the way.

Against Chicago, the next step up the staircase, the defense has a chance to set the tone again. Not every week will offer the same opportunity. We'll find out soon enough how the Eagles handle failure. Let's see how they handle success.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports