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The last time DeMeco Ryans played in a 3-4 scheme, things didn’t go so smoothly for the inside linebacker.
The Houston Texans had no complaints. They scrapped their longtime 4-3 alignment for the 3-4 in 2011 and finished with the NFL’s second-ranked defense.
But Ryans, a two-time Pro Bowler considered the bedrock of the Texans' defense, played fewer snaps in coordinator Wade Phillips’ scheme and was then shipped to the Eagles last offseason for a fourth-round pick and a swapping of third-rounders, fueling the perception that his best days were way behind him.
“It was a big perception that DeMeco doesn’t ft the 3-4, 4-3, whatever,” Ryans said Thursday. “I played in that defense, in the Texans’ 3-4 defense when we were the No. 1, No. 2 defense in the league. So if I didn’t fit in there then we wouldn’t have been that highly ranked.”
The reality of Ryans’ last year in Houston is that Phillips attacked on pass-rushing downs with a dime formation that featured Brian Cushing as the lone linebacker. It’s not that Ryans played poorly; he just didn’t play on passing downs.
With the Eagles in the midst of changing their defensive scheme to something resembling a 3-4 front -- or at least a hybrid of it -- Ryans’ fit once again comes under the microscope.
After a 2012 season in which he was one of the few bright spots on an otherwise abysmal defense, Ryans isn’t concerned about his ability to make plays in whatever formations coordinator Billy Davis draws up.
“It’s all about being versatile,” he said. “As a linebacker you have to be versatile -- 4-3, 3-4. Whatever it is this coaching staff is looking for me to do, I’m willing to do that. I’ve done both so I’m open to whatever it is.”
The Eagles believed Ryans fit perfectly into the middle of the 4-3 scheme they ran under former coach Andy Reid, but they obviously aren’t pessimistic about his adaptability to their new defense.
Despite a housecleaning of defensive veterans, starting with linemen Cullen Jenkins and Mike Patterson and continuing with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha, the Eagles held onto Ryans, who’s slated to make more than $6.5 million in 2013.
The gentlemanly Ryans quickly asserted his leadership in the locker room last year, and it’s safe to assume the rebuilding Eagles are keeping him around not just to man an inside linebacker spot but also to provide some stability and experience on a young team with an entirely new coaching staff and overhauled roster.
The Eagles aren’t throwing out the white flag in new coach Chip Kelly’s first season, but they’re an incomplete puzzle, and they need leaders like Ryans to help navigate through the growing pains and keep the players on board with Kelly’s vision.
“As a leader, you can't just be a leader when things are going good and everybody is a winner, look at me,” Ryans said. “No, when things are going bad I still have to step up and lead the guys.”
With all the new faces, Ryans understands that his role this year is as much about bridging the familiarity gap between players and coaches as it is tackling ball carriers. His hope is that this year’s team is more willing to bond and play selflessly, not just play like the collection of individuals that last year’s team did.
“You have to hang around each other to get to know each other,” he said. “One thing is not just hanging out here but off the field. We have to grow close together here as a unit. That is something we have to do more here.”
Ryans gave a lukewarm endorsement of his first season with the Eagles. Although he played at a level unseen at his position since Jeremiah Trotter retired the first time and set a team record with 16 tackles for a loss (a statistic charted since 1999), Ryans said he left too many impact plays on the field.
Ryans said he was too concerned about just making tackles to focus on stripping the ball or knocking it loose. Given all the turmoil on the coaching staff and the defense, it’s understandable why Ryans felt handcuffed on the field.
“There were a lot of moving parts on the defense, as you all know,” he said. “And it’s definitely a lot of changes that were going on, week in and week out. So from our standpoint as players we just try to go out and do what the coaches ask us and try to learn different things. Last year we had to learn different things kind of each week.”
Ryans’ only experience with Davis came seven years ago at the Senior Bowl, when Ryans was a draft prospect out of Alabama and Davis was his team’s defensive coordinator for the exhibition game.
He doesn’t yet know how he’ll factor into Davis’ plans, but he embraced the concept of change under new coach Chip Kelly and its impact on the franchise’s future.
“I think change is good,” he said. “As you all know, change can definitely be good. As we are now, change is here and I think we are headed in a very good direction.”