The Packers’ run defense has been one bright spot this season, and, though he doesn’t get the attention that Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, and Blake Martinez get, Jake Ryan is a big reason why. It’s not that those guys don’t deserve a ton of credit and attention. Daniels and Clark have been beasts and Blake Martinez is far and away the team’s leading tackler with 119. But Jake Ryan ranks third on the team with 64 tackles, three for a loss of yards, and when healthy, he’s been a solid contributor on a good run defense. The Packers defense ranks 14th against the run overall, but 10th in rushing yards per attempt – 4.0, and they’re tied for 3rd in rushing fumbles recovered with four. The defensive line deserves much credit for consistently winning in the trenches, but the linebackers (including box safeties Josh Jones and Morgan Burnett) have all stepped up to make the tackles. Inside linebacker in particular, seen as a glaring weakness only a couple seasons ago, is now a strength.Embed from Getty Images
Entering his third year, Ryan has actually seen a slight dip in production. But that is due to the ascendance of Martinez, Burnett, and Jones more than a regression from Ryan. Martinez has been phenomenal in his second season. Burnett and Jones have both shown the ability to stand up in run support, and their presence on the field is vital when facing receiving tight ends. But Ryan has also looked good this season, and there’s no indication he’s willing to give up his job without a fight. He has many strengths as an inside linebacker, including a nose for the ball and a knack for getting in prime position to make the tackle.
— Ross Uglem (@RossUglem) December 11, 2017
As you can see above, Ryan gets in position to tackle Crowell and makes the play. A former outside linebacker at Michigan, Ryan also shows quickness to evade the blocker. That combination of awareness and quickness make him formidable in the run game. Though screens have been a notable weakness for the Packers defense, those traits have helped him shut some down.
— Dusty All 22 (@All22Talk) December 6, 2017
The above play might be the best example of Ryan recognizing the screen and closing in fast. If Ryan had hesitated for even a moment, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t have made the play. He was a force against Tampa Bay, probably playing his best game of the season before leaving with an injury. That’s not to say he hasn’t been good earlier in the season, as you can see in this play against Minnesota.
The ILBs have really come on strong this year. Jake Ryan with a beautiful play in the run game. pic.twitter.com/EugLuV72Lo
— Andy Herman (@SconnieSports) October 21, 2017
Here, you can see Ryan reads the play, shows no hesitation in confronting the guard, rapidly disengages while still pursuing, and swiftly brings the running back to the ground. Ryan flashes his ability to make clean tackles in space, which is a critical skill for any inside linebacker.
It’s almost hard to imagine that, just a couple years ago, the inside linebacker was such a liability that Clay Matthews had to be moved inside full-time. And while Ryan will never be a dime linebacker, he has been gradually improving in pass coverage. That is important, because in today’s NFL, a linebacker can’t be a liability against receiving running backs and tight ends even on early downs. And in Capers’ scheme, for better or for worse, linebackers will sometimes have to cover wide receivers over the middle.
This was a big problem for Nate Palmer, who started 10 games at inside linebacker in 2015 before Matthews was forced to start there (Palmer is now a linebacker with the Titans). It was also a big problem for AJ Hawk in his later years, as he couldn’t keep up with even moderately athletic tight ends. The days of the early down thumper, who rarely needs to worry about pass coverage, are likely over. Ryan will need to continue to improve in this area, and so far it looks like he’s up to the task.