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DeMeco Ryans already 'heart and soul' of Eagles defense

PHILADELPHIA -- DeMeco Ryans looks you in the eye, truly attempting to answer your question. What you receive instead is an earnest shrug.

Why is Ryans the way he is? That's just the way he is. Always has been.

"In any sport I play, it's always been on me to just be that leader," Ryans explained in a victorious locker room after the Philadelphia Eagles took down the Baltimore Ravens, 24-23, last Sunday. "It comes natural to me. God just put me in a position to be that guy, to be that voice and I'm just blessed to be in that position."

From the University of Alabama to the Houston Texans to the Philadelphia Eagles. Each stop along the way, Ryans has done two things: Make plays. Make believers.

The middle linebacker is supposed to stop the run, defend the middle of the field and is often the green-dotted player calling the plays. The 6-foot-1, 247-pounder is all of that. But what the 33rd overall pick from the 2006 NFL Draft is drawing rave reviews for are the responsibilities that are tougher to categorize. What teammates are lauding is far less tangible.

How did the previously mish-mash Eagles defense morph into one that has performed like one of the NFL's best through a 2-0 start? How did it become a fierce, attacking group that has helped the offense make up for nine turnovers? Sure, there's familiarity, growth and any number of smaller issues.

But the finger is pointed at Ryans more than anyone. He has been glue.

"We add a guy like DeMeco Ryans, he's a leader, man," cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said. "He's doing a lot of talking. If he sees people not really into it, he'll slap them in the head, get people into it. I think he brought a new energy to the team. I can feel that."

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The player they call "DRC," who mentioned Ryans has been putting everyone in the right position, isn't alone. Defensive coordinator Juan Castillo had a simple response when asked to quantify Ryans' impact: "Leadership. I mean, heart and soul, man."

Ryans hasn't been with the Eagles long. They acquired the Pro Bowler and his $5.9 million contract from the Houston Texans in March, in exchange for draft compensation. But he's been able to make use of his time.

Unlike last year, there was an offseason, with OTAS and minicamp.

"We've been together since March, and 'Meco has been at every OTAs, he didn't miss one," Castillo said. "What happens is, the guys got to know him and what kind of person he is. He takes notes, the kind of leader, how smart he is and he's making plays. He's got all the qualifications you look for when you're looking for a leader, a guy to run the defense."

The Texans changed defenses, going to a 3-4 look, and the former Defensive Rookie of the Year was no longer a good fit. But in Philadelphia, it has been ideal. And not just for his play between the whistles. General manager Howie Roseman was looking for a quarterback for his defense, one that struggled the previous year with big names and botched assignments.

"In DeMeco, we got somebody who we know had taken a young team before," Roseman said. "We knew we were going to be a young team, and know we have some established guys. We were really excited about that opportunity. The way they talked about him in Houston, the effort and determination it took to get him out of Houston was something that ... That wasn't someone they were openly shopping and talking about getting rid of. But it was a fit, a win-win, and those are the best trades that you make."

How important has he been?

The Eagles were eighth in defense last year, which doesn't sound bad. But they began the season 1-4, giving up at least 29 points three times. While they did finish with four straight wins, they were already out of it. And few felt confident the D could stop anyone.

They returned for 2012 with mostly the same cast of characters, though there was a helpful infusion of rookies in defensive lineman Fletcher Cox, linebacker Mychal Kendricks and cornerback Brandon Boykin. And they've returned with more stability. Ryans, they say, helps that. It's what he does. It's been that way since he starred for the Crimson Tide.

On a 10-2 team at Alabama, Ryans was the cornerstone of a unit that was ranked No. 1 in the nation in scoring and second in total defense. The masterpiece came in holding Mike Leach's high-flying Texas Tech team to 10 points in the Cotton Bowl following the 2005 season. In the NFL, he was an immediate hit. But perhaps his best work came last season.

Despite losing dynamic edge player Mario Williams early in the season, the Texans finished second in the NFL in total defense. There were plenty of reasons why, but Ryans' impact on the unit as a whole can't be overlooked.

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Now, suddenly, the Eagles are fourth in the league in total defense, allowing 267.5 yards per game. The fact that he has contributed 11 tackles, a sack and an interception through two games, well, that's just part of it.

Really, it's his cerebral hold over the unit.

"My job is make sure the guys are in-tune to what we're doing, make sure everybody is focused," Ryans said. "Make sure everybody's intensity level is up when we step out on that field and everybody's on the same page. I'm going to be that guy that they hear. They may get tired of me talking, but I'm going to continue to talk to them to get in their ear and be on them every single step out there."

Players are listening. The amount of mistakes has shrunk while big plays have grown. Things are looking up.

"It seems like it's falling into place," Rodgers-Cromartie said.

Follow Ian Rapoport on Twitter @RapSheet.

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