They all gush about DeMeco Ryans the leader.

But if Ryans the player can't deliver on even average expectations, then it won't matter if he leads like Abraham Lincoln.

The Eagles may have never needed a middle linebacker to be so many things as they do this season. When they traded for Ryans in March, they said he would fill that multifaceted role - a three-down player who will be the defensive quarterback and lead not only a young linebacker group, but the entire defense.

He appears to have already taken the reins in the relatively brief time he's spent with the Eagles. That's a tribute to Ryans' professionalism, but also an indicator of how sorely the defense needed leadership before his arrival.

"He's a guy that can lead the whole defense," defensive coordinator Juan Castillo said. "That's really what he brings to the table right now for us."

But what about the main course? What will Ryans bring to the table in terms of his play? It's too early to say for certain. Ryans, like a number of players on defense, did not perform well in the preseason opener against the Steelers.

But it was his first game in a new scheme, he played only a quarter, and the defense did not prepare for Pittsburgh's offense.

Monday night's game at New England should provide a better idea, although it is only the preseason. With the Eagles' first-team defense expected to play more than a half against a Patriots offense that embarrassed Castillo's unit last season, it should offer a few clues on Ryans.

"They have a lot of different formations and sets, so that's going to challenge us defensively, because you don't normally see teams like the Patriots," Ryans said Saturday. "So many different offensive sets, so many threats at the tight end position. It's going to be a good test for us to see where we are."

Ryans will be at the center of it all. He'll be responsible, of course, for calling the plays and aligning the front seven. But he must be prepared in case quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots go no-huddle, as they did last November when they made mincemeat of the Eagles' pass defense.

As much as they like to chuck it, the Patriots ran more than they passed in that game. They averaged only 2.9 yards a carry, but it gave receivers Wes Welker and Deion Branch and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez all kinds of free space in the secondary.

Ryans, who is currently playing all three downs, will surely have to cover one of those tight ends at some point. And he'll have to chase down one of New England's no-name ballcarriers out of the backfield.

Against the Steelers, he was tested by a power running attack. Ryans - among others - did not fare well. He missed tackles and appeared to be late to the ball. The same issue that plagued the Eagles defense early last year reappeared: linebackers unable to get off blocks playing behind a front that focused less on the run.

"Every day [Ryans] gets a little more familiar with the defense, and so you see him playing faster," coach Andy Reid said. "You see him getting off blocks faster. He understands the gap responsibilities and the changes that take place up front with the defensive line."

If Ryans knows where to be, it should help camouflage what he lacks in explosiveness. There were several times last year when Casey Matthews, and then Jamar Chaney, misread gap responsibilities at middle linebacker. To be fair, it was a difficult position for two young players.

The Eagles have tabbed rookie Mychal Kendricks to start at strong-side linebacker, but he has Ryans - "Cap," as he was called in Houston - by his side. Texans linebacker Brian Cushing credits much of his development to playing with Ryans.

It was probably no coincidence that when the Eagles returned to the NovaCare Complex last week after training camp, Ryans' locker stall was next to Kendricks'.

"It's a good thing. I can still give him grief," Ryans said. "I give him a hard time out there on the field. I can still do it here in the locker room. It works out perfect."

Cushing eventually became better than Ryans. If Kendricks turns into a stud it will no doubt have something to do with "Cap." But the Eagles need Ryans to become some semblance of the linebacker that he was before he ruptured his Achilles tendon in 2010.

If that isn't enough pressure, Eagles fans are looking for a savior in the middle. Despite the demands, Ryans gives off an air of cool confidence. A steady stream of reporters reminds him of his task, and Ryans nonchalantly brushes them aside, as if the questioners were ill-equipped blockers.

"Talking about it is not going to do it justice," Ryans said. "You prove yourself by going out there and playing on the field."

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