GREEN BAY — The Packers are on track to have their leading tackler back on the field Monday night in Philadelphia.
Second-year linebacker Jake Ryan was listed as questionable on Friday’s injury report but the team is hopeful he’ll return after injuring his ankle two weeks ago in the first quarter against the Tennessee Titans.
A fourth-round pick in 2015, Ryan has developed into one of Green Bay’s surest tacklers on his way to 106 tackles in his first 16 games as a full-time starter (including playoffs).
Ryan became the centerpiece of the interior defense this season with Clay Matthews moving back to outside linebacker. His 59 tackles (41 solo) led the Packers through the first nine games, aiding what had been the NFL’s top run-stopping unit.
“Jake’s a big part of it,” assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley said. “He’s made a big stride from Year 1 to Year 2 in his development and even the beginning of this season in his growth.”
The Packers’ run defense has allowed 305 yards and four touchdowns on 61 attempts (5.0 yards per carry) in the team’s last two losses, nearly half of which came off a 75-yard touchdown by DeMarco Murray in Tennessee and Rob Kelley’s 66-yard gain a week ago in Washington.
While there were multiple factors that contributed to the breakdowns, Ryan’s absence certainly didn’t help matters. At the time of his injury, he and rookie Blake Martinez were developing into a dependable one-two punch on running downs.
With Ryan already sidelined, the Packers then lost Martinez to a knee injury in the fourth quarter against Washington that will sideline him against the Eagles.
Matthews said he took time this week brushing up on inside linebacker in case of emergency, but it appears more likely that Ryan will line up next to second-year linebacker Joe Thomas, who’s been playing in his absence the past two weeks.
“Joe’s a great player,” said Ryan on Friday. “I feel just as comfortable with him as I do Blake. It’s great to have Joe out there.”
Ryan missed practice on Wednesday for personal reasons but participated in a limited capacity Friday. McCurley said the team was cautious with him, particularly during the early portion of practice that was conducted outside on a wet, cold afternoon.
After focusing more on running and individual drills in the opening periods, Ryan said he took a “couple” team reps to get back up to speed.
The 6-foot-2, 240-pound linebacker said he initially injured his ankle after getting “twisted up” covering a punt against the Titans, but he didn’t know how significant the injury would be.
To his relief, he was given clearance to return to practice this week.
“It definitely hurt. I’ll give you that much,” Ryan said. “We’ve got the resources here. We’ve got the trainers here and the staff here to get you back as fast as you can.”
Ryan showed a lot of promise during his rookie season with 61 tackles (including playoffs) despite not making his first start next to Matthews until Week 13 against Detroit.
Matthews, who made his first Pro Bowl appearance as an inside linebacker in 2015, came away impressed by Ryan during their short time working together.
Ultimately, it was the development of Ryan, Martinez and Thomas that gave the Packers enough comfort to move Matthews back outside this season.
“He’s continuing to build off last year,” said Matthews of Ryan. “I think the latter part of the season, it was probably getting his feet wet and everything, but this year really taking it to another level; he and Blake on the inside trying to take that thing over.”
The Packers rank 18th in total defense and sixth against the run on the season, but they’ve given up more than 40 points in each of their last two games.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers and the coaching staff believe a turnaround starts with stopping the run, limiting big plays and generating more turnover opportunities.
The return of Ryan and cornerback Damarious Randall (groin) could go a long way in helping make that happen if both are cleared to play on Monday night.
“I think Jake is kind of typical from Year 1 to Year 2, we thought he made some pretty good strides and we’re anxious to see him back out there,” Capers said.
McCarthy and Ryan agree Sunday’s final practice likely will determine how much the second-year linebacker plays against Philadelphia.
The Eagles will be without starting running back Ryan Mathews (knee), but veteran Darren Sproles and rookie fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood have game-breaking ability if they get the ball in the open field.
On the eve of his return, Ryan hopes he can help the defense get back to playing like the top-ranked unit it was during the first half of the season.
“We have to improve,” Ryan said. “We have to learn from what we did the game before and capitalize on that.”