Jake Ryan found out he’d get his first career start in the days before the Green Bay Packers trip to Detroit last week, and the butterflies started to build.
It was a fitting place for the rookie Ryan to start what could be a long stint as one of the Packers’ starting inside linebackers. Ford Field, home of the Lions, is only a 45-minute drive from Michigan Stadium, where Ryan played college football.
Ryan, a fourth-round pick, played a career-high 51 snaps against the Lions. His biggest play came in the third quarter, when he recovered quarterback Matthew Stafford’s fumble at Detroit’s 12-yard line after outside linebacker Julius Peppers stripped the football. Three plays later, the Packers had a touchdown.
Naturally, the rookie gave all the praise to his veteran teammate.
“Pep just made a great play,” Ryan said. “It’s what he’s always done. He was in the right place at the right time.
“It was definitely a cool feeling.”
Ryan has been a steady special teams contributor long before his role increased on defense. His four special teams tackles are tied for sixth on the team, according to Pro Football Focus. After leading the Packers with 10 tackles in 39 snaps against the Carolina Panthers early last month, it seemed inevitable Ryan would earn a starting role on defense.
Instead, Ryan played only one snap in the next three games.
On the surface, Ryan appeared to be a significant upgrade over inside linebacker Nate Palmer. He’s had to adjust to the nuances of playing inside linebacker. In the middle of the defense, Ryan is responsible for relaying play calls and checks. If his communication is poor, it affects everybody.
“Jake has played good football, special teams,” McCarthy said. “He’s really started to grow at inside linebacker. Sometimes, we forget that the inside linebacker position is the key communicator, and particularly the ones that take the call from the sidelines. So I think his communication, urgency and the quality of it has picked up, and that’s important.
“He’s an instinctive player, obviously he’s productive, but he’s a young guy that needs a lot of work.”
Ryan had a strong debut, even with the nerves.
The rookie once again led the Packers with 10 tackles against the Lions, including one for lost yardage. His production playing alongside fellow inside linebacker Clay Matthews could be important down the stretch.
Ryan will find it easy to always remember his first start, too. He was on the sideline when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers flung a game-winning, 61-yard Hail Mary pass to tight end Richard Rodgers. When he saw the touchdown, Ryan rushed the field with the rest of his teammates.
“Crazy,” Ryan said. “I’ve never been a part of a Hail Mary pass like that ever, or something along those lines. It was definitely cool to be a part of.”