Eagles fly into first place thanks to NFL's stingiest defense

Lorenzo Reyes, USA TODAY
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Eagles DT Fletcher Cox lays a hit on Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday.

PHILADELPHIA — “We whupped that ass, huh?”

Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Brandon Graham, fresh off his team’s 34-3 dismantling of the previously undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday evening, ran through the tunnel at Lincoln Financial Field, still hyped up, and shouted that question at the adoring Philly fans.

Why, yes, Brandon. Yes you did. Philadelphia certainly thumped the Steelers.

And while Eagles rookie quarterback Carson Wentz may get the biggest headlines, it’s a stifling and oppressive defense that has at least an equal stake in propelling this team into first place in the NFC East.

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“We kind of enjoy flying under the radar, but I think obviously a win like this against a team like the Steelers will open some eyes around the league,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said in a post-game press conference. 

Philadelphia now holds the NFL’s stingiest scoring defense through Week 3, allowing only nine points per game. Not bad for a group that ranked 28th in that category last year, allowing 26.9 points per game under ex-coach Chip Kelly and former defensive coordinator Bill Davis.

If Sunday’s game against Pittsburgh was a test to see if the Eagles are for real, then they passed with flying colors.

“Everyone was on the Steelers’ bandwagon, and we pretty much came out and played our ball,” linebacker Nigel Bradham told USA TODAY Sports. “Being aggressive and attacking everything, that pretty much set the tone. I don’t think they expected us to be that physical. That’s what we are.

"They knew they was beat. That’s how it works. You keep taking them punches, and your best players are getting hit every time they get their hands on the ball. We tried to frustrate Big Ben as much as we can."

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All week long, new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz showed his players film of how Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger steps up in the pocket to launch throws. The emphasis was that even if a play doesn’t end with a sack, the Eagles wanted to at least push the Pittsburgh offensive line far enough to clog Roethlisberger’s pocket.

It worked.

The Eagles sacked Roethlisberger four times and totaled eight hurries. They flustered him all day, and the pressure forced him to sail a number of passes that he would normally hit. And even though receiver Antonio Brown, arguably the toughest cover in the entire NFL, caught 12 passes for 140 yards, the powerful Pittsburgh offense just didn’t make plays.

Roethlisberger completed just 54.5% of his passes for 257 yards with no touchdowns and one interception.

“Uh, we stunk,” Roethlisberger said. “Yeah. We all stunk.”

Added Brown: “We got our butt kicked.”

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Of course, it helped that the Eagles offense put Pittsburgh in an early hole, something Roethlisberger said made the Steeler offense one-dimensional.

Led by Schwartz’s "wide nine" scheme that encourages defensive ends to become pure pass rushers, Philadelphia has frequently generated pressure on opposing quarterbacks by only using its four-man front to create a pass rush.

With Pittsburgh down big for most of the game, the Eagles capitalized on the Steelers being in so many passing downs.

“We let the big guys go eat up front, and we cover our ass off until it’s time to make a play,” Bradham said. “They force a lot of turnovers for us by putting pressure on ‘em and getting the quarterback frustrated.”

The Eagles now have their bye week, but this young team will continue to be tested. After the break comes consecutive road games against the Detroit Lions in Week 5, and then against the division-rival Washington Redskins in Week 6. Four of the next five will be on the road.

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“This was a good benchmark,” Eagles coach Doug Pederson said Sunday. “The Steelers are a great football team. They are going to be there at the end. They always are.

"But for our guys, it is just a little glimpse of that belief that I have been saying since the spring and summer. If they just do their jobs, I just feel that good things can happen.”

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Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes

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