It might seem hard to believe now, but the Philadelphia Eagles acquired DeMeco Ryans from the Houston Texans for a fourth-round draft pick and a swap of third-rounders in 2012. That’s a bargain for a two-time Pro Bowl linebacker working on his third, the heart and soul of a defense that’s held opponents to 21 points or less in seven consecutive games.
This is the same DeMeco Ryans who talent evaluators feared might never be the same player after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in 2010, the same DeMeco Ryans who those same evaluators warned was not a fit for a 3-4 defense. Ryans’ critics could not have been more wrong.
Now into his eighth NFL campaign, the 29-year-old is actually closing in on perhaps his best all-around season as a pro. He leads the club in tackles with 96, also the third-highest total in the league. He became the first Eagle since Jeremiah Trotter in 2001 to record at least two sacks and two interceptions in the same season, and there are still five games left to play.
Ryans’ contributions certainly have not gone overlooked by the coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Bill Davis was effusive in his praise of the veteran interior linebacker while speaking to the Philadelphia media last week in a session transcribed by PhiladelphiaEagles.com:
DeMeco is the leader of our defense and he's having an outstanding Pro Bowl year and we couldn't be happier with everything DeMeco is doing for us. He quarterbacks the defense, we give him a lot of leeway. He can get us in and out of defenses. Gets us in the best defense possible, and as the season has gone on we as a staff have gotten more and more comfortable in his ability to put us in good situations, and he has, and from there he's done a great job playing the middle linebacker position, between tackle to tackle, he is a force. Whether it's crossing routes he's knocking out or the inside run game that he's tackling. He had one of the best form tackles I've seen in a long time last week. We couldn't be happier with DeMeco.
Ryans has been solid in coverage this season, already setting a career high with two interceptions. He’s also been surprisingly effective when rushing the passer, which has never been his strong suit really, but has resulted in a pair of sacks and a bunch of hurries.
Where Ryans is so enjoyable to watch though, where he really earns his paycheck is against the run. Davis’ comments were made after the Green Bay game, when the Eagles held Eddie Lacy and the NFL’s sixth-ranked rushing attack to 99 yards on 30 attempts for a 3.3 average, almost a full yard-and-a-half less than their season average of 4.7. It was arguably Ryans’ best performance of the year.
Watch how he identifies an off-tackle handoff and beats the back into the hole and picks up a tackle for loss. Ryans is playing instinctively and attacking the line of scrimmage, which is when he’s at his best.
Yet the biggest difference between this year and last for Ryans might be how much he’s improved at fighting off of blocks. Some of that is undoubtedly scheme. In the Wide 9 defensive front the Eagles employed under the previous coaching regime, offensive linemen were into the second level almost immediately, often engulfing the linebackers.
Now the offensive line has to work a little to get to the second level, which gives Ryans a chance to read and react. That allows the linebacker to slip a block entirely as No. 59 does here before swarming to the ball-carrier to help bring him down in the backfield again.
When Ryans is unleashed and allowed to attack the line of scrimmage though, sometimes he’s able to dictate the result of an entire play by himself. In the next frames, he’s going to shove an offensive lineman to the ground then chase Lacy down from behind, putting a stop that run before it ever got started.
And even when the play isn’t easy, Ryans can still manage to make it appear so. It looks like he’s going to overpursue and get bottled up by a trap block. The center moves on to the next level though, and the wily Ryans isn’t as far out of position as the fullback thinks. You think a fullback is going to block DeMeco Ryans?
We could do this all day. Ryans has been putting on a run-stopping clinic for the past couple months, and while the Eagles have benefited from playing some one-dimensional offenses during their recent run, it’s seemingly simple plays like these that are making those offenses that way—plays that have been missing in Philly’s defense for years, by the way.
The Birds were fortunate to land Ryans for any cost, let alone the relatively low price that they did. He had just signed a big contract with Houston before the Achilles injury, then the following year the defense converted to a 3-4. Ryans didn’t pick it up right away, wasn’t 100 percent to begin with, and started to lose playing time which was chalked to the Texans using more dime personnel.
With Brian Cushing developing into a star in the middle, Ryans became a luxury in Houston even if he learned the system and made a full recovery, so here he is wearing midnight green. It seems maybe that trade was always destined to work out for the Eagles, because that swap of third-round picks as part of the deal? It wound up netting Philly one Nick Foles as well.
Time will tell, but that may be Ryans’ best contribution to the team yet.