DeMeco Ryans: Man in the Middle

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LB DeMeco Ryans (59) is the focal point of the Texans defense.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article first appeared in the Houston Texans Gameday magazine on Nov. 23, 2009, for Houston's showdown at home against the Tennessee Titans.

It's a sobering thought: Where would the Texans' defense be without DeMeco Ryans directing traffic at middle linebacker?

It's similar to asking where the Colts' offense would be without Peyton Manning.

"He's our Peyton Manning on the defensive side of the ball," cornerback Dunta Robinson said. "He's controlling everything. One thing about DeMeco, he's extremely smart. If you're out of position, he'll line you up here and say, 'This is what you're supposed to do on this play.' He can do that all before the ball is snapped."

No one defensive player has been more important than Ryans after the Texans' first three games of the season, when the defense ranked statistically among the league's worst. As team captain, Ryans led vocally and by action.

Where would the Texans' defense be without Ryans? Defensive coordinator Frank Bush doesn't even want to think about that. Ryans is the key that starts the defense's engine.

"He's the quarterback of our defense," Bush said. "He's the guy. He studies a lot of tape. He studies what every guy on the defense is supposed to do. I tell you what: It's rare to find a guy that can combine his physical attributes along with his brain.

"He really is a guy that can get us out of a lot of bad situations and get us in good situations defensively."

It's been like that since 2006, when Ryans, a second-round pick from Alabama, stepped seamlessly out of his Crimson Tide uniform into the starting middle linebacker position for the Texans. He has been the team's leading tackler and conscience since then.

Ryans had a smashing rookie season, leading the team with 156 tackles. He led the team in tackles in each of his first three seasons, topping 100 total tackles each time. He earned defensive rookie of the year honors from several organizations. After his second season, he went to the Pro Bowl and was named second-team All-Pro by the Associated Press.

When the Texans had an abysmal start on defense this season, coach Gary Kubiak counted on Ryans to help restore order. Ryans also has guided rookie linebacker Brian Cushing, the team's first-round pick in 2009, through his first season.

"DeMeco has played as well as he's played since he's been here," Kubiak said. "He's just got a compadre now. (Cushing) is getting a lot of attention, but DeMeco is playing as well as any time since he's been a Texan, and he's on his way to a Pro Bowl-type season."

Cushing has benefitted from Ryans' tutoring, ranking as the team's leading tackler leading up to tonight's game against the Titans. He has 76 total tackles, and Ryans is the runner-up with 68. They've become quite a pair for opposing offenses to go against.

What does Ryans mean to Cushing?

"Everything," Cushing said. "He's been my mentor. He's really guided me on the field and helped me a lot. He's shown me the ropes. He's a Pro Bowl linebacker, and even in the beginning, he was basically lining me up, just telling me what to do."

Cushing has been wise to listen. The rookie from USC already has been voted AFC Defensive Player of the Week twice.

"DeMeco has always done his part," Kubiak said. "For Brian Cushing's progress, DeMeco deserves a lot of credit because he's out there helping him every snap and DeMeco is an unselfish captain. He makes everybody better.

"He's got another playmaker on the field, another guy that can follow people back to DeMeco. You are only as good as all 11 of them, and obviously, we got better at (Cushing's) spot."

{QUOTE}The defense gave up huge clumps of yards to start the season. Runners sped through gaping holes for long touchdown runs. Coaches railed about one mistake here and two there causing the problems. It was fixable, they said. But a turnaround seemed improbable to outsiders.

"It was tough because we knew we had guys that were in place, able to make plays," Ryans said. "We made a few changes like with (Bernard) Pollard coming in and starting to play more consistent. We got Jacques (Reeves) back, and that helped. We got some key players coming back and allowing us to turn it around and get things going in the right direction."

Ryans is thankful that the players stuck together during the tough start of the season. Bush points to Ryans as a big part of making that happen.

"He is our leader, one of the smarter guys on the football team," Bush said. "He kind of keeps guys into it. He's a motivating guy on the sideline. He keeps guys straight, and I know we wouldn't be improving without him buying into the program first and then getting everybody else to buy into it."

Ryans' teammates credit him with setting the tone on the field, setting up the defense, making play after play – sometimes yelling, sometimes showing by example.

"DeMeco is DeMeco," Robinson said. "He's one of those guys on Sunday you don't worry about. You can overlook him because you know he's going to do his job. He stays consistent and never loses his head. That kind of rubs off on the rest of us guys on the defensive side of the ball."

Ryans has been there every game since his rookie season. He and defensive end Mario Williams are the only defensive players to start every game since 2006.

"He's kind of a vocal leader," Robinson said. "If things aren't going well, he'll rally the troops. He also leads by the way he plays on the football field. You can't ask for much more from your middle linebacker, the guy that's running the entire show. He's a true middle linebacker."

Ryans takes his leadership seriously, beginning in the film room, where he intently studies all three linebacker positions.

"It makes me more comfortable because I have to know all three positions," Ryans said. "I have to make sure they are on the right page and make sure they know what they're doing and make sure those guys are lined up right. It makes me study more."

Having Pollard at strong safety has been a key addition that has added to Ryans' comfort level.

"There's not a lot of thinking going on," Ryans said. "We've played this defense long enough that we can just go out and play. It's easier to go play when you know all the adjustments and everything that can happen. Guys are communicating well with Pollard back there.

"That makes the job easier because he's a great communicator in the back end. I try to get the guys right up front. When you have two guys on the defense that are communicating well, all the problems are solved. That's increased every week. The guys are jelling together. They're a great group to play with right now."

As the defense has improved, Ryans has seen a return of confidence that had sagged early this season.

"That swagger comes from being accountable and everybody doing their job," Ryans said. "When you know that guys are going to line up and do their jobs, it's easy to play with swagger. I'm only worried about what I'm going to do; I don't have to worry about what the other guys will do."

A little of that swagger tonight might be helpful.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Michael A. Lutz worked for The Associated Press for 38 years covering news and sports in Louisville, Ky., Dallas and Houston. Most of that time was spent in Houston covering the Oilers, Astros, Texans and other college and pro teams.

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