All-22: Does DeMeco Ryans Fit In a 3-4?

DeMeco Ryans is already tired of answering questions about whether he can play in a 3-4 defense.

Last offseason, the Texans dealt Ryans to the Eagles, and many of his teammates openly questioned why the front office was getting rid of such a valuable player.

There were several theories at the time: It was a salary dump; he wasn’t the same player he was before the Achilles’ injury; he didn’t fit in a 3-4.

As the Eagles get ready for a scheme change this offseason, the topic of Ryans’ role and skill set is worth revisiting.

In March of 2010, the Texans rewarded Ryans with a contract extension. At 25, with two Pro Bowls under his belt, it seemed like a no-brainer.

But the following season, he suffered an Achilles’ injury and missed the team’s final 10 games. As Ryans underwent surgery and rehab, the Texans hired Wade Phillips as their defensive coordinator and decided to switch to a 3-4.

When the season started, Ryans was 10 months removed from surgery and was also battling an elbow injury. Word out of Houston was that he didn’t look like the same player he was before the injury.

According to Pro Football Focus, he played just 58.4 percent of the Texans’ defensive snaps in 2011. To understand why Ryans was taken off the field, we have to look at Houston’s sub package.

Here’s an All-22 shot from the Texans’ wild-card playoff game against the Bengals. While Houston was a base 3-4 team, here’s what its defense looked like on passing downs. Notice that there are six defensive backs on the field.

According to Football Outsiders, the Texans played dime with six defensive backs 31 percent of the time, third-most in the NFL. The Texans frequently played with just one linebacker, Brian Cushing.

Here, the key player is safety Glover Quin. You’ll notice he is lined up basically as an inside linebacker, alongside Cushing.

Sidenote: Take a look at the Texans’ front. We’ve spent plenty of time discussing the Eagles’ base defense, but their sub package is just as important. Here, you see Houston has four down linemen, and look at how wide those defensive ends are. That sure looks like the Wide-9 to me (sorry, I know that many of you want that term banned in 2013).

On the right side is new Eagle Connor Barwin. We’ll have to see what new defensive coordinator Billy Davis has planned, but you can see here that he has options with guys like Brandon Graham and Trent Cole playing DE with their hands on the ground in sub packages.

Getting back to Ryans, Phillips clearly felt his group was better served on passing downs with six defensive backs, rather than a second linebacker. And it’s difficult to argue with the results. Houston went from the 32nd-ranked pass defense in 2010 to No. 7 in 2011, according to Football Outsiders’ rankings.

The story the Eagles told after the trade was that Ryans got better as the 2011 season progressed and was playing pretty well down the stretch. I watched the Texans’ two playoff games, along with a Week 15 matchup against the Panthers and saw Ryans do a lot of good things.

Here, against Cincinnati, he lines up in the base package, as the Bengals set up with two tight ends.

Initially, it looks like running back Bernard Scott has a lane, but Ryans makes the read, plugs the hole and stops him after a 1-yard gain.

Against the Ravens, he again lines up in the base, gets off the center’s block and hustles to the ball-carrier, helping to stop Ray Rice after a 4-yard run.

Was Ryans perfect? Of course not. Fullback Vonta Leach got the better of him at times in the playoff game against Baltimore, and there were instances where he got blocked by offensive linemen. But overall, I thought he held up well. And last season, one more year removed from the Achilles’ injury, he was really good against the run.

Remember, the Eagles’ scheme did not feature defensive linemen eating up blocks and allowing Ryans to run freely. The Birds were often in the Wide-9, and he was left to fight off offensive linemen, something that could be critical if the Eagles go to a 4-3 under.

In coverage, Ryans is OK. It’s not his strength, but it’s not like he has to come off the field in passing situations either. In the games I watched from 2011, he was up and down.

Here, the Bengals use motion to get Ryans on a slot receiver.

Ryans gets turned around and gives up an 8-yard completion.

Against Baltimore, though, this is the kind of play we saw from Ryans a lot last year. He gets matched up with Ray Rice, allows a completion, but tackles him for no gain.

What’s the bottom line for Ryans going forward? I would be surprised if scheme fit is an issue with him. Houston had better options and wasn’t going to pay big money to a player who was spending passing downs on the sidelines.

The Eagles are in a different situation. They expect Ryans to be a leader on defense as they push forward under Chip Kelly. He’s now more than two years removed from the Achilles’ injury and showed last year that he can be a productive player, even when things are falling apart around him.

Ryans is 28, and aside from 2010, has never missed a game since entering the league in 2006. His strength is not some kind of freakish athleticism. He’s a smart, fundamentally-sound player who makes good reads and gets to the football. Last year, according to stats kept by coaches, Ryans had 115 solo tackles, the most of any Eagle during the Andy Reid era. He also had 16 tackles for loss, the most of any defensive player in a single season under Reid.

Given the Eagles’ current personnel, I would fully expect Ryans to stay on the field in sub packages. He might not play 1,074 out of 1,077 snaps like last season (per PFF), but Ryans figures to see plenty of action alongside Mychal Kendricks in nickel.

With plenty of new faces and moving parts, look for the coaches to ask Ryans to be the glue that holds everything together.

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.
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