The Philadelphia Eagles need to look good Sunday in their season opener in Cleveland. A lackluster performance -- or worse, a loss -- would render it inadvisable for anyone connected with the team to listen to talk radio on their drives to or from work next week. The Eagles are supposed to be a very good team this year, and the Browns a very bad one, and after failing to live up to their potential last year, the Eagles would do well to make a dominating statement in their opener.
One of the ways to do that, of course, is on defense -- especially the run defense, which looked like a concern during last year's season-opening victory in St. Louis and turned out to be a legitimate one. One of the ways the Eagles believed they fixed their run-defense problems this year is with the trade for middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who was a dominant defensive player and team leader in Houston before his 2010 Achilles injury.
But fans and media have been skeptical of Ryans since that trade. Why did Houston give him up for so little? What if he's not the same player he was before his injury? And the latest: Why didn't he look better in the preseason? These are questions that loom about Ryans with the real games about to start, and the last one was one that defensive coordinator Juan Castillo faced Thursday.
"I think that DeMeco did make plays," Castillo said in his weekly news conference. "He made plays in practice. He did things. He got everybody lined up. He's been a leader for our group. He's done some good things that we see, and sometimes I think it's not always judged on tackles. We get to see the tape, he is feeling comfortable with our system and he's doing a good job for our young kids. I think the thing that's really special is that you see him in installs and the notes that he takes and how he prepares for games. That's invaluable. You see the other kids sitting right next to him and they see the way he takes notes and the way he prepares and that’s where he is really valuable to those guys."
You'll notice that, after the initial assertion, Castillo's quote trends far away from the issue of why Ryans didn't perform better in preseason games, so reporters at the news conference followed up. Castillo's answer was that preseason games represent too small a sample size from which to draw conclusions and that Ryans looked good in practice when media weren't there to watch. Entirely possible, and the point about drawing conclusions based on preseason games is one you know is more than welcome in this space. But if Ryans were looking awful in practice, there's no way Castillo would be saying anything different than he's saying right now.
Add in this, from Jeff McLane, about the rotation the Eagles' linebackers say they've been using some in practices, and it's only natural to wonder whether the team's professed high expectations for Ryans as a three-down linebacker are going to match up with the realities of playing time and production.
The Eagles got Ryans because they needed a sure tackler, a reliable playmaker and a veteran leader for the middle of their defense. If he is not all of those things, then their issues in the middle of the field are not fixed. Starting Sunday, when they face a Cleveland offense that's far more likely to rely on rookie running back Trent Richardson than it is rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden, we will be able to get some sense of the reality of this situation. My feeling is that Ryans is an excellent player who will surprise pleasantly. Some who've been around the team in recent weeks seem to feel otherwise, or at least are still wondering. The answer to this riddle will have a lot to say about how far this Eagles' team and its defense can go in 2012.