NOW IN HIS EIGHTH season in the NFL, middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans has been named to the Pro Bowl twice and was an All-Pro selection in 2007, but never has defeated the Cowboys in four meetings as a Texan and Eagle.
In two meetings against Dallas last season, the Eagles' defense struggled, allowing a combined 76 points in two losses. Following a 4-12 season, the team used the offseason to adjust to defensive coordinator Bill Davis' 3-4 defense, a move that has paid off for Ryans after working in Houston's 3-4 defense for five seasons.
"Just having some experience and a lot of game reps and a full season in the same type of defense has helped him," said cornerback Roc Carmichael, who was a Texans teammate of Ryans in 2011. "I liked just watching him and Connor [Barwin] out there in Houston. I liked watching how they operated and it's the same here in Philadelphia now that they are here, and they know how to play off of each other."
In six games this season, Ryans is leading the team with 51 combined tackles - 40 solo and 11 assisted. Ryans has added one sack, already matching his total from his first season with the Eagles.
"There is no difference at all. He is the same DeMeco and he is the same leader of men," said fellow linebacker Barwin, who played with Ryans for three seasons in Houston before rejoining him with the Eagles. "He has been the same way since I've known him - just a great guy and a great football player."
The 29-year-old Ryans understands the challenge the defense will face Sunday against the Cowboys' offense, led by quarterback Tony Romo.
"It will be a tough test for us," Ryans said. "They have a bunch of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball, so it's definitely going to be a good challenge for us defensively, and we will see how well we match up against these guys."
As one of the leaders of the defense, Ryans is focusing on Dallas' passing game, but says it is important not to forget about the rushing attack.
"They are throwing the ball around a lot more," Ryans said. "Romo has better control of the offense and they are giving him a chance to show what he can do, and he is definitely playing really good this year.
"We know they are a pass-first team so we definitely have to focus on the pass this week, but we can't just totally forget about the run because they do have a solid offensive line and they do a good job of protecting and run-blocking, so we still have to be able to stop the run."
When Wade Phillips took over as Houston's defensive coordinator in 2011, Ryans initially struggled, but finished the season strong in the 3-4 formation. Because of that experience, Barwin said it should not be a surprise that Ryans is currently leading the team in tackles.
"The numbers speak for themselves; he's been great," Barwin said. "I know he's got a ton of tackles and he has done a great job of getting everybody where they need to be because there are a ton of moving parts in a 3-4, and he does a great job leading us."
The Eagles' defense has struggled, witness the 29.8 points per game it has allowed, but Ryans believes there has been steady improvement. In order to compete with Dallas, Ryans said the team will have to step up the way it did in recent weeks against New York and Tampa Bay.
"We're getting there. We're getting better every week," Ryans said. "I think we are taking little things and just getting better every week. I'm proud of the progress we're making, especially the way guys are stepping up and finishing in the second half of games; that's what it's all about. We are really going to need that this week. We are taking strides and getting there and our defense is getting better and better."
Ryans said the defense must stick to the game plan if it hopes to jump into sole possession of first place in the NFC East.
"As a defender, everybody just has to do their job," Ryans said. "We can't focus on doing somebody else's job. It's simple as whatever the defense calls for you to do on that particular play, just do your job."