The scheme change has been dramatic, and there are still areas in need of a talent upgrade in the offseason. But overall, Davis’ group has made great strides throughout the course of the season.
The leader of the group is DeMeco Ryans, and according to Pro Football Focus, he’s logged more snaps than any other defensive player in football. Ryans is outstanding against the run. That has never been in question. And as we’ve written about at length, he makes the calls on defense to get everyone set up. Without him on the field, there would likely be a lot of confusion up front.
Ryans, however, is not a great cover linebacker. Offenses that can get him matched up man-to-man against a running back or tight end will have an advantage. In zone, Ryans often tries to keep opponents in front of him and limit the damage after the catch.
But there's another way he's contributing in coverage too - by disrupting shallow routes over the middle.
The 'chuck rule' allows defenders to make contact with opponents within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. And Ryans is using that to his advantage.
For example, take this play from Week 11. Wide receiver Aldrick Robinson is going to run a shallow crossing route.
Ryans is going to be responsible for him. But instead of trying to run with the wide receiver, he decides his best course of action is to level Robinson. Because he's within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, this is legal.
Robert Griffin III wants to go to Robinson, but Ryans shoves him forward, disrupting the timing of the play.
You can see Ryans knocks Robinson 3 yards off where his original route was being run. You can also see that had he whiffed, Robinson would have been wide open with plenty of space to pick up yards after the catch.
But because Ryans threw off the timing of the play, Griffin had to hesitate. By that time, Trent Cole had beat Trent Williams and gotten a hold of Griffin for the sack.
Similar concept earlier in the game.
Here, Ryans is going to initially show blitz up at the line of scrimmage.
This is a way to mess with teams' protections. Because of where Ryans is stationed, the left guard has to be prepared to account for him. You'll notice that Fletcher Cox is lined up at the nose, and Cole is at right defensive end. By threatening Ryans as a rusher, both those players should initially get one-one-one blocks.
Ryans takes a step forward to sell the blitz and occupy the left guard. He then drops back into coverage just in time to find Leonard Hankerson running a crossing route.
Ryans is a help defender here. The Eagles are in man coverage, and Boykin has Hankerson. But the wide receiver enters the "Ryans Zone" within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. That means he's getting hit.
Griffin went in another direction with the ball, but you can see that Ryans once again threw off the timing of the receiver's route.
For someone like Ryans who never comes off the field but isn't great in coverage, it's important to find ways to still affect the passing game. Season stats show he has a pair of sacks and two interceptions. Ryans' contribution in disrupting the timing of routes doesn't show up in the box score, but shouldn't go unnoticed.