Eagles' Ryans back to his old self

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Eagles' DeMeco Ryans takes down Raiders' Terrelle Pryor.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Eagles' DeMeco Ryans takes down Raiders' Terrelle Pryor.
Posted: November 15, 2013

DEMECO RYANS believes he's playing as well as he ever played in Houston, when he made the Pro Bowl twice. Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said this week that Ryans is having an "outstanding, Pro Bowl year."

"This is the level I was playing at. It's fun to be back at that level, being able to make plays," Ryans, the Birds' middle linebacker, said yesterday.

There is one guy in the Eagles' locker room who ought to be able to verify those claims.

Outside linebacker Connor Barwin was a rookie with the Texans in 2009, the last time Ryans made the Pro Bowl, before he suffered a 2010 Achilles' tendon tear that cast a shadow over his career. Barwin was still with the Texans in 2011, when Ryans came back and struggled, before regaining his stride late in the season, as his recovery progressed.

When Houston traded him early in 2012 because it had Brian Cushing to play Ryans' spot, there was a perception that Ryans hadn't fit Houston's new 3-4 scheme, and that maybe he wasn't quite the same player he'd been. That latter perception grew last season, when Ryans was OK in the Birds' struggling 4-3, but not spectacular.

Barwin, who came to the Eagles as a free agent this offseason, said yesterday he knows he's playing with the same guy who captained the Texans' defense.

"He looks exactly like the level of player he was when he left Houston," Barwin said of Ryans, 29, who leads the Eagles with 125 tackles, by the team's reckoning. (Tackles are not an official NFL stat, teams are free to use their own figures.) Ryans projects to 200 tackles, a figure not reached by an Eagle since Jeremiah Trotter (202) in 1999. "The year [before] he was traded he was hurt, but I can distinctly remember that last month, when he got healthy and was playing as good as any inside linebacker, and I think he's playing at that level again.

"He's out there every snap, getting us in the right calls, he's a very physical player; he's clearly the hardest hitter on our defense, which is the right kind of attitude, and which you need out of your middle linebacker."

Rookie linebacker Jake Knott said: "When you came in, they'd always say, 'Try to follow a guy who does it the right way, a pro, a guy who just gets it, comes in every single day with the same attitude.' That's literally DeMeco Ryans . . . he's a game manager. He just gets football. He knows the ins and outs of it. He's smart, he's physical, he's a leader out there and off the field."

How much you buy into Ryans' renaissance, playing in the 3-4 scheme for which he supposedly was unsuited, might depend on how much you buy into the improvement of the Eagles' defense over the past 6 weeks, since that awful afternoon in Denver when the team allowed 52 points (though 14 of them came on special teams). Since Denver, no Eagles opponent has scored more than 21 points. But the Birds can't seem to rise above 31st in the NFL defensive rankings, which only measure yards. And Ryans' tackle stats have to be viewed through the prism of the numbers of plays opponents are running, opposite the Eagles' hurry-up, quick-strike offense, against an Eagles' D that has struggled at times with getting off the field. More plays, more tackles.

With a healthy Robert Griffin III looming when the Redskins visit this weekend, it's hard to ignore that Green Bay quarterback Scott Tolzien, in his first NFL action, completed 24 of 39 passes for 280 yards last Sunday, though he did throw two interceptions, one on a spectacular Ryans dive for a tipped ball, and the Pack was held to 13 points.

Eagles coach Chip Kelly said yesterday he thinks his defense has improved every week.

Barwin said yesterday: "I knew it would take time. And I knew Billy's [Davis] background, I respected him because of what he's done, but I knew it would take time, just because you had six new starters, four or five coaches who had never worked together, on the defensive side of the ball - if you just paid attention, you knew it was going to take time for this all to gel together."

Ryans said he sees players more comfortable in their roles now, not having to think so much, making plays.

"I see our defense as an attacking defense, fast, flying around, creating turnovers," he said.

Davis said that as the season has gone on, he has expanded Ryans' authority to make adjustments before the snap.

"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 . . . tackle to tackle, he's a force . . . we couldn't be happier with DeMeco," Davis said. "I cannot overstate what DeMeco means to this defense and the way he's leading the group."

Ryans said when he came to the Eagles he knew, "I still had work to put in to get back to where I wanted to be, but I've never had a doubt in my mind that I could get back to this level."

"The Eagles knew what they were doing when they brought him here," defensive lineman Cedric Thornton said yesterday.

RGIII, another guy who has had to work his way back to his previous level after an injury, ought to be this defense's toughest test since it was decimated by Peyton Manning back on Sept. 29. The spotlight rests squarely on Ryans.

"We follow him," corner Bradley Fletcher said, when asked about Ryans. "The rest of the team on defense just tries to keep up with him."

On Twitter: @LesBowen

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