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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  • Chris

    Great analysis Sheil, as always. I think Ryans will be just fine. He looked great last year, and everyone knows we need leaders right now. As you said, I can’t see him playing as many snaps in the 3-4 as he did in the 4-3 but he will make a big impact and is another year removed from his injury. I won’t question Ryans’ ability to play in any scheme until he gives me a reason to. From what I saw last year, he should have another great year. We just need the defense around him to improve.

  • http://www.philthycanuck.com/ Adam

    Sheil you truly are a man of the people. Great work as always, When I watched the fishduck break down of Chip’s offense, he notes that most of the talking heads during the game don’t really understand what is happening during all the read option plays, so I’m really looking forward to this feature to break it down in more detail.

  • TheCatalyst

    I love these All-22 breakdowns. I think by adding his old wingman Barwin, Ryans can excel due to the chemistry they already have and build upon the chemistry he has with Kendricks. For the first time in YEARS I actually feel confident in the LB core. I’m also really intrigued with the 4-3 Under and how it will compare to a base 3-4.

  • PaoliBulldog

    I can understand why Houston felt Ryans was, if not expendable, at least nonessential. And I guess his contract diminished his trade value. AND the Texans made good use of the draft choice the Eagles gave up (Ben Jones, center/guard). But when the trade was made, it was widely regarded as a steal for the Eagles, and regardless what scheme Kelly/Davis use going forward, they’d make that deal 100 times over again.

    • GGeagle

      It was a fantastic deal for us…but you definitely understand how they couldnt continue to pay him that money..They played Dime alot, and only used 1 LB in the Nickle formation, so it really made no sense to pay HIm AND Cushing that kind of money…That was one of the best trades the Eagles ever made…#1 would probably be the Peters play. Its not every day you trade for one of the best players in the NFL, and to have aquired the best player at 1 of the 3 most valued positions is just a homerun….how did we get the 2nd 1st round pick we had that year, that enabled us to trade for JP?

      • PaoliBulldog

        Well, since you asked politely:

        Carolina traded its 2008 first-round selection (28th overall, which was traded to Buffalo, used to select Eric Wood), and its 2008 second- and fourth-round selections (43rd overall, which was traded to Minnesota, who selected Tyrell Johnson; and 109th overall, used to select Mike McGlynn) to Philadelphia for its 2008 first-round selection (19th overall, used to select Jeff Otah).

        Philadelphia traded the 2008 first-round selection it acquired from Carolina (28th overall, used to select Eric Wood), its 2008 fourth-round selection (121st overall, used to select Shawn Nelson), and its 2010 sixth-round selection (192nd overall, used to select Danny Batten) to Buffalo for Jason Peters.

        (Source: Wikipedia.)

        Basically, the Panthers’ decision to trade up for Otah gave the Eagles the pick they used to acquire Peters. Can’t really fault the Panthers for the move; Otah blew out his knee two years in, while Peters had the courtesy to preserve his Achilles tendon until he had completed his eighth NFL season. But Otah looked like a young Jason Peters for twelve games or so.

        • limodriver27

          Even with the Wiki reference, you still nailed it.

          • PaoliBulldog

            Actually, I didn’t nail it. Here’s the corrected recap:

            To acquire the Eagles’ 19th pick in the 2008 draft, Carolina gave up its 1st round pick in the *2009* draft. So the Eagles did not have a first round pick in 2008, but they had two in 2009. They used the first to select Maclin and the second as part of the Peters trade.

  • theycallmerob

    Sheil, you’re All-22 reviews consistently give me football boners. Thanks as always for debunking stupidity with those annoying little things called facts.

  • poetx99

    excellent analysis as always, sheil. also, this was a great respite from the never-ending speculative draft articles. can’t wait until they are over (and we move into never-ending speculative articles about who makes the team, who breaks out, etc).

    nice catch, too, that HOU played 31% dime packages, as well as picking up that even though their base was a 3-4, situationally, that can give way to a four man front.

  • GGeagle

    Of course Demeco fits a 3-4…I cant believe we even talk about this…all because the Texans needed something to sell to their fans to justify salary cap dumping a beloved player…He is the same size as Patrik Willis, and measured in as being stronger at the combine: More bench press reps than Willis, better Broad Jump than Willis, and their vertical was the same…Demeco and Willis are closer to the same size than people realize, and Willis is the King of the 3-4…Ideally Demeco would be 10lbs heavier, but he is strong and physical enough to bang it out with the strong side guard all game…Demeco himself said: “I played on a 3-4 defense in Houston when we were ranked #1, or #2, and we would not have been that good if I couldnt play in a 3-4″….Demeco will be one of our best players on defense again next year, so if he doesnt fit, than a bunch of other players wont fit either………….I cant wait for the first idiot that comes here and tells me Demeco is not similar physically to willis!

    • theycallmerob

      well, sure. if we’re just talking measurables, Mamula is in the HOF. Demeco is a great LB. But he is no Patrick Willis.

      • GGeagle

        Cause my post meant that Demeco is Patrick Willis….including Mamula? awesome

  • GGeagle

    Sal Pal tweeted that he has never seen a college head coach, given as much power as Chip has been given from the Eagles. At 5:15 Sal Pal will be on Mike Misanelli’s show, and mike will get clarification. Sal Pal also thinks he knows who the first 5 picks are…

  • GGeagle

    Sal Pal is saying he is hearing Joekel and Fisher are the 1st two picks in the draft..Sal Pal says that If Jax takes Fisher(They dont have a RT, and they just decided not to extend Eugen Monroe), than we will most likely take Dion Jordan…Basically he is saying its either Fisher,Floyd or Dion Jordan

    • GGeagle

      Sal said he had Howie Roseman on the phone today, and was picking and prodding him in every way possible…and Howie told Sal, that he wont even tell his wife who we are drafting lol

      • limodriver27

        I can appreciate and fully agree with the Mod’s decision to shade the following comment. There’s no need for that behavior. Thank you, Moderator.

    • since1961

      You don’t need to bother posting something attributable to SP, as it’s always wrong and never funny.

  • Mostel

    Great analysis. Outside of going to a lame 3-4 or 4-3 under, rather than a 4-3, the D should be fine with Meco in there leading things.

  • Warhound

    Saw elsewhere that DJ punt return vs Giants voted best play in NFL history. I think the best play in Eagles history is Bednariks championship game sealing tackle of Jim Taylor in 1960.

    • PaoliBulldog

      That’s definitely the biggest play in team history since it sealed the championship. But before DeSean there was a punt returner by the name of Westbrook….

  • Neil

    If you ignore the fact that in the base defense the edge rushers are standing up and drop some of the time, they are also in a wide nine.

    :o

  • takeo

    Key point here is the Egales (like most of the teams using 3-4 or any sort of hybrid) will still play with 4 down linemen (nickel pkgs, dime pkgs, ….) for more than 50% of their snaps.
    That’s why I’m not overly worried with Cole and Graham transitioning to OLB: because they will stay at traditional DE spot for significant time.

  • PaoliBulldog

    When the Eagles acquired Ryans, the first comparison that came to mind was Bill Bergey, who was about 28 when the Bengals dealt him.

    But I had forgotten what a steep price the Eagles paid for Bergey – two #1′s and a #2. Ryan’s came incredibly cheaply by comparison.

    Of course Ryans isn’t quite the monster Bergey was, but neither was Jeremiah Trotter, and nobody’s complaining about that.

  • Victor

    Great Article!!! nice job!

  • Del

    Dude. You really put together great articles and analysis!!

  • Mighty Joe Banner

    Thats promising news.

  • Sig

    Good special teamer and an okay backup. I have no issue having a guy like Jordan on the team. Just hope he never gets on the field playing defence.