Reading the Defense: Ryans helping Eagles take wing

While most of us have been pointing and staring at the rise and fall (and subsequent re-rise) of the Philadelphia Eagles offense, a lot of people have missed a defense that started the season as one of the league's worst slowly pulling itself from the muck.

Before you start to hammer me about a defense that still ranks 21st among fantasy outfits and sits tied for 27th among NFL scoring defenses, I'm not suggesting they're ready to be mentioned in the same breath with the Chiefs, Panthers or 49ers. But in the past month, Philadelphia boasts the 11th-best fantasy defense. In the past two weeks, the Iggles are a top-10 crew.

Chief among the standout Birds has been linebacker DeMeco Ryans. In the past four games, Ryans is the third-highest-scoring defensive player overall. During that stretch, the veteran has posted double-digit scoring three times. Go back a little further, and Ryans has scored 10-plus points in four of his past six contests.

He's done it -- like so many other linebackers -- by being a high-volume tackler, averaging eight stops per game. That's been a large part of the reason Philly has clamped down on the running game recently. In the first four games of the season, the Eagles were allowing more than 120 rushing yards per game. Since then, that number has fallen to 103 yards per contest -- and even that number is inflated by the Raiders rushing for 210 yards in a contest that was never really close.

This week, Ryans and the Eagles will likely have another chance to prove this recent resurgence isn't a fluke. They're lining up against the Packers, who are trying to find a new identity with Aaron Rodgers out of the lineup. Last week, Green Bay leaned on Eddie Lacy after Rodgers' departure.

With the Pack still trying to sort out its quarterback situation, it's likely that Lacy and James Starks will see another heavy workload. With the Browns, Chiefs and Jets all sitting out this week, Ryans could be an attractive LB option.

Getting defensive in Dallas

Once upon a time, if you were looking for an IDP option from the Dallas Cowboys, your laser focus would have been trained on DeMarcus Ware. After all, he'd averaged 15 sacks per year over the past seven seasons. This year has been a different story. Injuries have limited Ware to just six games and four sacks. But in his absence, others have stepped up to fill the gap.

Enter Jason Hatcher. Now in his eighth season, the veteran defensive lineman is having a career season. Though nine games, Hatcher has seven QB takedowns -- far surpassing his career-high (4.5) tally and is quickly closing in on a career-best in tackles.

And he's doing it while playing on a defensive line that has been injury-riddled all season long. Overall, the Cowboys defense hasn't been much to write home about. The secondary has had a laundry list of problems, some of which has to do with a pass rush that has been mediocre all year long.

But it's hard to find fault with a player who leads his team in sacks and sits sixth in the league overall. Hatcher did reaggravate a stinger in last week's win over the Minnesota Vikings. Keep an eye on him. If he's able to go, there should be ample opportunity for him to add to his sack total against the New Orleans pass attack.

Four downs

» Speaking of DeMarcus Ware, the Cowboys pass rusher was back at practice Wednesday after missing the past three games with a strained quad. When it's all said and done, Ware's time out of action will be much closer to the 2 to 4 week timeline originally diagnosed. His return could make a world of difference to Dallas' ailing defensive line -- as well as IDP owners' lineups.

» The Packers might have lost Aaron Rodgers, but they could soon regain Clay Matthews. The star linebacker was back to work at practice with a "club" on his hand to protect the thumb fracture he suffered in Week 5. When Matthews is right, he's one of the best quarterback hunters in the NFL. And with such a big loss on the offensive, Green Bay could definitely use his help.

» Aldon Smith could be back for the 49ersas soon as this Sunday. The talented but troubled linebacker returned to the team this week and was removed from the reserve/non-football illness list. Smith is one of the best pure pass rushers in the league and would make a tough defense even tougher. His presence would certainly be welcomed this week to keep Cam Newton in the pocket as much as possible.

» The Saints placed linebacker Jonathan Vilma on injured reserve. The move certainly ends his season and could signal an end to his career. In 10 seasons, Vilma was one of the league's top all-around linebackers. However, injuries had slowed him in recent seasons as he hadn't played a full 16 games since 2010.

Marcas Grant is a fantasy editor for NFL.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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