Nothing was guaranteed for Jake Ryan.
A fourth-round draft pick in 2015, he didn’t move into the starting lineup until December.
That grasp on the starting job hardly seemed secure headed into the offseason. A fourth-round pick was used on Blake Martinez. Sam Barrington, an intelligent, hard-hitting presence, was coming back from a season-ending injury.
For the final preseason game, Ryan and Barrington started together in what appeared to be a winner-takes-all battle to start opposite Martinez.
Ryan won the job — Barrington lost his spot on the roster — and has hit the ground running to start this season. Through two weeks, Ryan leads the team with 17 tackles.
“I feel more comfortable with the defense,” Ryan said of what looks like a Year 2 jump. “Last year, I knew it but I didn’t know what everyone else was doing on the defense. There were some parts to it that I knew but now I know everyone, I know the rotations, I know everything. Right now, it’s just doing it and doing it with instincts, too.”
Those instincts have shown up as a key piece to the NFL’s top-ranked run defense. In Week 1 at Jacksonville, the Jaguars had 48 yards on 26 carries — their fewest rushing yards in a game with 25-plus carries since 1999. In Week 2 at Minnesota, he helped stop Adrian Peterson in his tracks, with his 19 yards the fourth-fewest of his illustrious career.
“Just reading the plays and knowing what’s developing and just taking the shots that you need to take in order to get the ball down,” Ryan said. “Sometimes, they’re unethical but most of the time they work if you’re seeing it and reading the ball.”
That’s the guts of an experienced veteran, not a 24-year-old, second-year player who will be making his 10th career start (including playoffs) on Sunday against Detroit. In defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ run-game scheme, each player is assigned to take a gap. In theory, if each person does his job, the running back will have no place to go. Ryan’s “unethical” approach means he’s occasionally leaving his gap to go make a play.
It’s a gamble — but it’s a gamble based on intelligence.
“You play with your football instincts,” Capers said. “Some guys have good football instincts. I think most of your really good players do, so as long as they know their responsibility and they are accountable for their responsibility — because they know we’re going to hold them accountable for that — then whatever they do above and beyond that, then we’re all for. If your instincts tell you something or the tendencies tell you this or that, most of the good players can gain a step or two because they have a pretty good feel of what a team does out of this set or that set. To me, that’s what the really good players do. They gain an advantage over some of the other guys who don’t really gain a step or two because they aren’t sure of what their tendencies are.”
Linebackers are paid to stop the run, but the best linebackers make plays in the passing game, too. That was a struggle at times for Ryan during his rookie season, most notably the Week 16 loss at Arizona. However, his improvement and potential to continue that improvement likely played a role in Ryan beating out Barrington. Ryan had an excellent workout at the Scouting Combine leading up to the 2015 draft and has shown more of that quick-twitch change-of-direction skill this year. Combined with intelligence and instincts, he’s tied for the team lead with two passes broken up. Against Jacksonville, he broke up a pass intended for star receiver Allen Hurns and also sniffed out a screen. Against Minnesota, he broke up a pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph.
“I thought his pass coverage against Minnesota was probably one of his better performances in that particular segment,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think Jake has played some really good football for us.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.