Inside the Eagles: DeMeco Ryans has taken Eagles defense to new level

DeMeco Ryans intercepts a pass intended for Baltimore's Dennis Pitta in the Eagles' victory last Sunday.
DeMeco Ryans intercepts a pass intended for Baltimore's Dennis Pitta in the Eagles' victory last Sunday.
Posted: September 24, 2012

Like most great leaders, DeMeco Ryans doesn't want credit.

He doesn't want bouquets of praise for turning the Eagles defense around. The middle linebacker doesn't believe he's the missing piece to make the wide-nine work.

And despite being called "Cap" or "Coach" since high school days, Ryans doesn't think much about why others follow his lead.

"There's no magic tricks," Ryans said last week. "For me, I just go out there and be myself and try to do things the right way, so guys if they see me doing it the right way then they'll be more prone to listen to what I'm saying."

As simple as he made it sound, Ryans doesn't like to reveal his secrets. But when NFL Films miked the linebacker for last Sunday's game against the Ravens, and a four-minute collection of sound bites was aired, there was the evidence.

Ryans on game day is one-part preacher, another part inspirational speaker, and an all-authoritative leader. At one point on the sideline he whispers into rookie linebacker Mychal Kendricks' ear, "Clear your mind, don't let nothing linger."

The two linebackers have been attached at the hip since the Eagles drafted Kendricks a month after they traded for Ryans. The team made sure of that, placing their locker stalls next to each other and rooming them together at training camp.

The partnership has been successful so far. Ryans and Kendricks have played only two games together and they've already made more impact plays than last year's linebacker crew.

That's not a knock on Jamar Chaney, Casey Matthews, et al. They were ill-equipped and ill-prepared to play behind the wide-nine, Jim Washburn's pass-rush-happy defensive line formation. The one Andy Reid wanted so badly that he promoted his offensive line coach to defensive coordinator.

But Reid didn't have the linebackers to fend off those blockers, fill those gaps, and stop the run. Ryans has been a revelation, knowing where to be and at what exact moment. Kendricks has helped on the ground, but his athleticism has allowed him to drop into coverage without missing a beat.

The wide-nine - and the entire defense, for that matter - is working now because of personnel.

"You want to know the key to why it's successful? The difference?" defensive end Jason "Mr. Wide-Nine" Babin said. "Kendricks, DeMeco, Akeem [Jordan]. There you go. Nothing's changed. Watching last year's tape and watching the last two games - it looks so much better. It's like a machine."

The Eagles have played just two games - they have a third Sunday at 2-0 Arizona - but it's difficult not to overstate when talking about Ryans. His performance in the second half of the Ravens game - five solo tackles, one sack, and an interception - was nearly perfect.

The Eagles haven't had a linebacker play at that level in years. They haven't had a player acquired via trade or free agency make such an immediate impact since Terrell Owens in 2004.

Ryans isn't especially fast, and at 6-foot-1, 247 pounds he isn't particularly big. But he's smart. He knows how to read offenses. He knows how to play the angles. He knows how to get off blocks.

"He's very good at, when a lineman comes up, getting that initial pop and getting him off," Matthews said. "As a linebacker, if a lineman comes up on you, you got to shock him."

Like many machines, the wide-nine is only one blip from breaking.

Take, for instance, Ray Rice's 43-yard run Sunday. It was a play executed to near perfection in which the Ravens right tackle pulled to block safety Nate Allen, who was responsible for the "B" gap. Ryans could have helped Allen, but he bit on a slight fake by Rice and was gobbled up inside.

"It can work as long as everyone's doing their job," Matthews said. "You watch the film and there's still mistakes . . . There's still plays that are out there."

Kendricks copped to not knowing much about the wide-nine before he got here.

"But at the end of the day, it's just another way to play football," he said. "Straight up."

Ryans has made very little of the wide-nine since he arrived in March from Houston. He was traded because the Texans had to clear cap space and because they could not afford to pay $5 million to a linebacker who was playing less than two-thirds of the time in their 3-4 scheme.

But teammates like linebacker Brian Cushing decried the move and said the locker room would be hurt by Ryans' departure. His leadership skills were evident in the NFL Films segment as he fired up the defense before the game, motivated the front four, and calmed a young linebacker.

"He was just letting me know, 'You know your stuff. You've prepared. Clear your mind and play the game,' " Kendricks said. "He knows that I know it and he knows that I ask questions too much."

As Kendricks spoke, Ryans arrived at his locker stall and chided his protege.

"Don't tell him what we talk about," Ryans said.

Kendricks: "You were miked. He already knows."

Ryans: "He don't know."

Ryans then walked away.

"He's tight, but it's cool," Kendricks said. "You know what I'm saying? I'm not there yet. It's a whole 'nother thing up here. I just listen and learn."


DeMeco 'De' Leader

DeMeco Ryans was wired by NFL Films during the Eagles-Ravens game last week, and a four-minute sampling of the middle linebacker doing his leadership thing was broadcast on NFL Network. The segment can be viewed at philly.com/ryans.

While it is best to view the piece to get a sense of how he instructs and inspires, here's a sampling of how a vocal Ryans amped up the defense:

Pregame, Ryans gathers the defense together: "The first one in our house. Let's show them what they walked into."

Right before the Eagles' first defensive series as he huddles the unit up: "It's starting right here, boys. Dominate. Be the best. Everybody step up. Do your job."

Later, Ryans walks along the defensive line, offering inspiration: "Let's eat. Let's eat. Those boys got nothing up front. Cut it loose. Knock one out."

The Ravens are driving on the Eagles: "Let's go man. Pick up the energy. It's a fight. It's a fight. Let's go. . . . Everybody step up and fight."

After his third-quarter interception, Ryans prowls the sideline barking: "All about that nasty 'D.' All about that nasty 'D.' It's time. It's time."

Ryans to linebacker Mychal Kendricks before the Ravens' last drive: "Tight coverage on everything. Perfect on assignment. Make the play. Keep them in bounds. All right?" - Jeff McLane


Contact Jeff McLane at 215-854-4745, jmclane@phillynews.com or on Twitter @Jeff_McLane.

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