Hayes: Eagles' 'D' the other half of stunning start

ADD JIM SCHWARTZ to the list of Eagles defensive demigods.

His defense bares its teeth and digs in its heels and dares you to make a play. So far, the opponents have bowed their heads and shuffled their feet and made too few plays to matter.

After the Steelers moved the ball effectively early, Schwartz scrapped his plan to double-team wideout Antonio Brown and play man-to-man against what defensive end Connor Barwin called the best receiving corps the Birds will face. Ben Roethlisberger's reads were too easy. Schwartz switched to zone coverage, took away early reads, blitzed only twice and trusted his big fellas to win in the trenches.

The result: 34-3.

The clatter of the Wentz Wagon is deafening, and it is warranted. Never before has an NFL quarterback with so little time in the fire been so incendiary. Carson Wentz has been transcendent.

Almost as good as the defense.

Poll

How far can the Eagles go this season?

The Eagles have surrendered 27 points in three wins as they enter the bye week, the fewest points allowed in the league. Seven of them came on a meaningless punt return by the Bears.

The last comparable start was 2004, when Jim Johnson's defense surrendered 63 points in the first five games. In 1992, the Birds allowed 27 points through three games and, in 1991, they allowed 29; those defenses were created by Buddy Ryan and featured Reggie White & Co. Marion Campbell's defense in 1981 gave up 27 points through three games, and, in 1980, Campbell's defense allowed just 16 points in its first three games.

The Eagles went to the playoffs each of those seasons except 1991 and they made it the Super Bowl after the 1980 and 2004 seasons, which is logical: You've got a better chance of winning if your opponent can't score.

"Jim emphasizes that," said safety Malcolm Jenkins. "We don't care about yards. We don't care about any stat but points."

Pay attention, NFL.

This wasn't the Browns and RG3-and-out.

This wasn't the Bears and Jay "Glass Jaw" Cutler.

This was a real team by any definition; a Super Bowl contender, by many estimations. This was Big Ben and a bona fide offense, a 2-0 team ranked fourth in points per game and seventh in yards per game. Roethlisberger led the league with six touchdown passes.

Sunday night: Three points. Four sacks. A fumble and an interception.

A failed fourth-and-5 call that spurred a rout for the ages and left the Eagles elated . . . right?

"We still can be better," said star defensive tackle Fletcher Cox.

"We want the zero," rookie corner Jalen Mills said. "We want the shutout."

This defense seeks dominance and humiliation.

Buddy and JJ would be proud.

Buddy Ryan's blind spots as a head coach could not diminish his defense's effectiveness. Jim Johnson's name is spoken in a reverent hush at the NovaCare Center, his personal exotic-blitz mad-science laboratory that he refused to leave.

They now may rest in peace.

They have a worthy successor. Finally.

Sean McDermott was too young and Juan Castillo hadn't coached defense since the Reagan years and Todd Bowles was a midseason Band-Aid and Billy Davis was Chip Kelly's biggest mistake.

Now, a man wears the headset who understands what Philadelphia craves: country-strong beasts who push those doughy dancers on the offensive line right into the lap of the passer. That's how Cox got the first of his two sacks: He reached around his blocker and grabbed on to Big Ben with one hand and didn't let go.

That sack squelched the Steelers' second-best drive of the night and forced a 40-yard field goal in the second quarter. Their best drive, in the first quarter, got them 4 yards closer, but defensive tackle Bennie Logan blocked that field-goal try. Logan added a sack later, which came just before Cox's second sack, on which he forced Roethlisberger's fumble. Defensive end Brandon Graham fell on that fumble and added a sack in the fourth.

It was the defense's finest hour in years, and, as much credit as that decorated defensive line will receive, the secondary deserves some recognition, too.

Roethlisberger completed 24 of 44 passes for 257 yards, 12 and 140 of which went to Antonio Brown, but the Birds will give him 5.8 yards per attempt all day (and a 62.4 passer rating). The Eagles' secondary has a bad habit of giving up big plays - it surrendered a 41-yarder and a 32-yarder - but 41 yards and 32 yards did not equal six points, and that's the key statistic for this hodgepodge defensive backfield.

Rodney McLeod, who notched the interception, was a free-agent addition at safety. Corners Nolan Carroll and Leodis McKelvin were coming off injuries in 2015. Reserve corner Ron Brooks was a backup in Buffalo for four years before landing in Philadelphia. Safety Jaylen Watkins and Mills were never guaranteed a job.

"You have a lot of guys who have a lot to prove," Jenkins said.

Jenkins signed an extension this winter, so he knew he was established, and he heightened his profile early in the third quarter. The Steelers, trailing by 17 points less than 5 minutes into the third quarter, faced fourth-and-5 at the Eagles' 33. Jenkins drew Brown in coverage - a mismatch by any standard.

Jenkins laid out and nearly intercepted the pass.

"When we saw they were going for it on fourth down, we had to make them pay," Jenkins said. "They had a receiver they were going to force the ball to. It was a big momentum swing."

They could hardly have more momentum entering their bye week.

They could hardly have envisioned this.

Sure, Schwartz is a respected defensive mind. He was a head coach in Detroit. Doug Pederson, a rookie head coach with negligible NFL experience as an assistant, hired Schwartz to design and direct the defense with autonomy.

Still, Schwartz not only had to install a new defense, but he also inherited 11 of the 16 players he uses most often. The holdovers ran a three-lineman, four-linebacker scheme. Schwartz runs a 4-3.

The learning curve was supposed to be much, much steeper.

"I really didn't know," Barwin said. "I thought we were talented. A good group of guys. You don't really know until we get out there and play."

Now you know.


hayesm@phillynews.com

@inkstainedretch Blog: ph.ly/DNL