PHILADELPHIA — Tell the Eagles' fans to put away the poster paint. Maybe they won't be needing to make any "86 the 46" signs, after all.
When Eagles' owner Norman Braman hired Buddy Ryan, the man who invented the famed 46 defense that helped Chicago waltz through the 1985 season and Super Bowl XX, he said Ryan had "changed the whole concept of defense."
The fans in Philadelphia--who have about as much patience with failure on the playing field as they do with a bad cheesesteak sandwich--were beginning to wonder if this new idea was designed to set records for minutes played by a defensive unit, not to mention points allowed.
But the real 46 showed up at Veterans Stadium Sunday. And it 86-ed the Rams, 34-20, as the Eagles won their first game of the year and gave Ryan his first victory as a head coach.
Maybe the Eagles haven't exactly perfected Ryan's gambling, pressure defense, but they forced three first-half turnovers and shut out the Rams for most of three quarters Sunday. Philadelphia led, 27-0, at halftime and went ahead, 34-0, before Steve Dils, who replaced an injured Steve Bartkowski in the second quarter, threw three touchdown passes in the last 17 minutes.
"They scored only one on our first bunch (team)," Ryan said. "Then we put in the second bunch and they didn't know what the hell they were doing so we went with one front and one coverage."
Ryan's 46 is characterized by its multitude of fronts, alignments and coverages, which could be part of the reason the 1-3 Eagles had their problems implementing it before Sunday.
"There's so many adjustments that have to be made," said safety Andre Waters, who adjusted his way to an interception and also forced a fumble. "Not just anyone can come in and play it. You have to be smart . . . real smart."
Luck, of course, always helps, too.
The Rams' first possession of the game ended abruptly when free safety Terry Hoage deflected a Bartkowski pass into the air. Waters grabbed the ball and returned it 15 yards to the Ram 36-yard line. Four plays later, Paul McFadden kicked a 22-yard field goal and the Eagles led, 3-0.
On the Rams' next play from scrimmage, Bartkowski hit Eric Dickerson over the middle. Waters then hit Dickerson and dislodged the ball in the process. Wes Hopkins recovered for the Eagles and, a minute and a half later, Philadelphia had a 10-0 lead.
"This defense needs to create turnovers, that's what it's all about," Waters said. "On the interception, the ball was just there and I grabbed it. On the fumble, I hit him and the ball was in my face, so I just raked it loose."
In the first three games, it was the Eagles' defense getting raked . . . over the coals, that is. The defense had yielded 87 points and opponents were averaging more than 200 yards rushing.
Last week, even pass-happy Denver got into the act. After Bronco running backs Sammy Winder (104 yards) and Gerald Willhite (91) ran all over the Eagles, a lot of folks in the Delaware Valley were wondering what a runner such as Dickerson might do . . . even some folks in green and silver uniforms.
"A lot of people didn't give us much chance today and I'm not sure we gave ourselves that much of a chance," quarterback Ron Jaworski said. "But we were determined to play our best and see what happened."
What happened, happened fast. Philadelphia led, 10-0, after nine and a half minutes and the Rams' were forced to reconsider their traditional grind-it-out-on-the-ground offensive strategy. As a result, Dickerson finished with 58 yards in 17 carries.
"We knew if we let him get going, he'd kill us," defensive tackle Reggie White said. "We were already last in the league against the rush, so we knew we had to be more aggressive. Everybody's getting more used to the 46 and we really cut down on the mental mistakes today. I think that was a key.
"Eric's a great running back and the Rams have a great offense. This was a really big confidence-builder for us."
That's pretty much the way left tackle Ken Clarke saw it, too.
"Dickerson wasn't a factor, but he sure could've been if we didn't play as well as we did," Clarke said. "If you let him get hot, they'll ball-control the hell out of you all day."
The Rams lost control of this one early on, but no one in the Eagles' locker room was quite ready to say they've mastered Ryan's 46 and are en route to the Super Bowl.
Still, they do have reason to believe that the corner has been turned, that they are beginning to master it.
"We played good team defense," Waters said. "We played like we knew what we were doing."