Ryans emerges as a leader on Eagles' defense

Eagles inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans, left, defensive end Vinny Curry, center, and free safety Patrick Chung tackle Raiders running back Rashad Jennings during the fourth quarter in Oakland, Calif., on Nov. 3.

PHILADELPHIA - The hallways of the NovaCare Complex are plastered with photos of Eagles players who have made the Pro Bowl in the last 20 years or so.

You have to walk a while to find a picture of a linebacker. Jeremiah Trotter was the last to earn that honor. He made the last of his four Pro Bowls following the 2005 season.

DeMeco Ryans may end that slump this season.

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Ryans enters Sunday's game against Washington as one of the NFL's most productive players at the position. Ryans, who plays inside linebacker in the Eagles' 3-4 defensive scheme, ranks fourth in the league according to NFL.com's statistics with 89 tackles. Only Cincinnati's Vontaze Burfict (103), Buffalo's Kiko Alonzo (99) and Dallas' Sean Lee (93) have made more stops.

Ryans' interception in last Sunday's 27-13 victory at Green Bay gave him two interceptions and two sacks for the season. He's the first Eagles linebacker to do that since Trotter in 2001.

"DeMeco is the leader of our defense," Eagles defensive coordinator Billy Davis said. "He's having an outstanding year, and we couldn't be happier with everything that DeMeco is doing for us. He is a force."

Along the way, Ryans has also removed the doubts about his ability that cropped up after he ruptured his left Achilles' tendon during the 2010 season while playing for Houston and became a situational player for the Texans in 2011.

The Eagles saw enough potential in the 6-foot-1, 247-pounder to acquire him in a trade before last season. He responded by leading the team in tackles and emerging as the leader of the defense.

But that was playing middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme. The Eagles switched to a 3-4 this season, the same defense that caused him problems with Houston in 2011.

"I'm not trying to prove anything," Ryans said. "I never felt like I couldn't play in a 3-4. It's fun to be back healthy again and making plays. That's what I strive for every game."

His leadership has been at least as valuable as his production.

The soft-spoken native of Bessemer, Ala., is not the rah-rah type such as Trotter or former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. But the 29-year-old oozes confidence and provides veteran guidance for a defense filled with younger players such as defensive end Fletcher Cox (22), nose tackle Bennie Logan (23), linebacker Mychal Kendricks (23) and safety Earl Wolff (23).

"I get asked about leadership a lot," Ryans said. "I don't go out of my way to be a leader. I mainly just try to lead by example. If I have something to say, I pick my spots. I just say a few words to make sure everyone's mind is focused on what we have to do."

Davis has entrusted him to run the defense.

Ryans is responsible for making every call for the front seven during a game and making sure everyone is lined up in the proper spot. If there is a last-second adjustment that's needed, Ryans has the freedom to make it.

"He's the quarterback of the defense," Davis said. "I give him a lot of leeway. As the season has gone on, we have gotten more and more comfortable in his ability to put us in good situations.

"It's an extreme luxury. I cannot overstate what DeMeco means to this defense and the way he's leading the group."

The results have been impressive in recent games.

The defense got off to a rocky start this season, allowing 26 or more points in the Eagles' first four games. Although Denver's 52 points included touchdowns off a kickoff return and a blocked punt, the defense took a lot of criticism.

But the unit has played well in the last month. Starting with a 31-20 victory at Tampa Bay, Eagles' opponents have not scored more than 20 points in five games. The Eagles' defense has given up 17 or less in three of the last four.

Ryans is the biggest reason.

"We never stopped believing in ourselves," Ryans said. "Everyone bought into the system from Day One. It was just a matter of us finding our way. Everybody knows and understands their roles now and that enables us to play fast."

Extra points: Kendricks (sprained knee), linebacker Jake Knott (strained hamstring), tackle Jason Peters (strained quadriceps) and Wolff (sprained knee) did not practice Wednesday. If Kendricks, Peters and Wolff can't play against the Redskins, Najee Goode, Allen Barbre and Patrick Chung will start in their spots.

Tight end Brent Celek (bruised hip), cornerback Bradley Fletcher (pectoral strain) and quarterback Michael Vick (strained hamstring) were limited Wednesday. Vick ducked out of the locker room after practice when reporters sought to interview him.

Contact David Weinberg:


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