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September 08, 2016

Starting Sunday against RG3, front four will lead Eagles defense

Throughout the 2016 preseason, the Eagles defense was undeniably impressive. The unit led the league in both points per game and interceptions, while also finishing seventh in total yards and sacks.

Don’t you dare mention any of this to Jim Schwartz, though. On Thursday, the Eagles defensive coordinator at times sounded as annoyed with the preseason as the most jaded sportswriter or the longtime season ticket holder who can’t even give their seats away.  

“On my bio, does it say anything about preseason stats anywhere?” Schwartz asked. “Yeah, I don’t carry those with me, man.”

Heading into the opener on Sunday at The Linc against the Cleveland Browns, all of the talk will be about Carson Wentz’s debut. Rightfully so, but if the Eagles are going at least field a competitive team this season, odds are that it will mostly be because of Schwartz’s defense.

The first test comes against an opponent that, frankly, Schwartz’s troops should be able to handle. Among other things, he expects Browns head coach Hue Jackson to let quarterback Robert Griffin III run read-option and take some deep shots down the field.

Still, this projects to be one of the league’s worst teams. If that is indeed Cleveland’s game plan, the Eagles defensive line will likely get more than a few chances to make some plays. In case you haven’t been paying attention, that is a good thing.

“They need to be tone setters,” Schwartz said. “That’s one of the reasons we need those guys playing wide open. Everyone has to be running every play from a pursuit standpoint, stopping the run, creating negative plays, getting after the passer.

“It’s a very difficult thing to do, but when we’re playing well, that will be the engine that keeps us going.”

Within that defense, the strength figures to be a front four that features Fletcher Cox, Bennie Logan, Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry, and Brandon Graham. In what is generally considered the most notable game of the preseason (Don’t tell Schwartz!), that front was in Andrew Luck’s face the entire first half, making the Colts offense look bad in the process.

(To be fair, that Colts offense might just be bad in general.)

Schwartz knows how difficult it is to generate a consistent pass rush in the NFL for 16 games. Think about it: 300-pound offensive linemen are hitting you on every play, sometimes actively in the run game. The Eagles are deep up front, and starting on Sunday, you can bet they’re going to be utilizing that depth by rotating heavily.

“I’ve always compared it to the bullpen in baseball,” Schwartz said. “It’s hard, if you’re a starter and you’re pacing yourself, there’s not many guys that can gas at 100 mph. You’re coming out of the bullpen, you’re throwing an inning, you can heat it up pretty good.”

Over the past few years, the Eagles defensive line was forced to take more of a passive approach in Bill Davis’ 3-4 scheme. Starting Sunday, they can finally get after the quarterback on their own terms.

And their coach can stop downplaying any success that they have, if they have it.

“Yeah, there’s positives signs,” Schwartz said. “Yeah, I think we’ve shown signs that I think we can execute schemes and we’re trending in the right direction. But let’s not start getting ahead of ourselves, we got a lot of work to do. It’s a long season.

“How we perform, there’s going to be no asterisks that say, ‘Yeah, they were crappy this year but they played really good in the preseason.,” Schwartz said. “Any of you guys going to write that? I’m not going to put that on my wall, believe me.”

Follow Rich on Twitter: @rich_hofmann