They are the unidentified giants in the middle, the anonymous
players quietly having a serious impact on the game, the nameless grunts going
to battle on every play that almost never get the recognition they deserve.
They are defensive tackles and – more specifically – the nose
tackles who on every single snap ignite a massive collision of humanity that in
some way or another will almost always have a direct effect on what happens on a
For the Rams, the man handling those duties is Clifton Ryan. And
though you may not realize it, the third-year nose tackle out of Michigan State
is having a breakout 2009 season that is earning rave reviews from those that
have seen him play, those that play with him and those that play against him.
“Clif has done a great job,” defensive coordinator Ken Flajole
said. “I complimented him last week. The outcome wasn’t what we wanted but I
thought Clif played a nice game for us. He continues to get better. He’s one of
those guys that goes in and battle every day on the interior line. It’s not a
pretty position, you don’t get a lot of credit sometimes when you are playing
well and it’s a position that kind of gets lost sometimes. There is nothing
pretty or glamorous about the defensive tackle position. He’s done a nice job
for us and hopefully he will continue to get better and keep helping
In most sports, the one thing that never lies is the numbers.
Statistics can determine a lot about how well a hitter is doing in baseball or
what type of performance a basketball player is putting forth every night. It
can be true in football too unless you play defensive tackle.
Six games into the 2009 season, Ryan has 21 tackles, a sack and
a pass defended. Those numbers might seem average on the surface when compared
to, say, middle linebacker James Laurinaitis.
A guy like Laurinaitis leads the Rams with 59 tackles, nearly 10
per game and he immediately jumps out on the game film because he’s constantly
around the ball.
But what doesn’t get seen is the part of the play where Ryan
takes on two or more blockers, one of whom was probably originally assigned to
get to the second level and block Laurinaitis in an effort to spring his running
Instead, Ryan uses his 6’3, 310-pound frame to take up space,
push back the linemen and allow Laurinaitis to run free to the ball. In many
ways, it’s like having a point guard who can distribute the ball to a dominant
post player in basketball.
And as it stands, Ryan is doing it as well as he’s ever done it
on a professional level.
“I guess you could say that from an individual standpoint but I
want some wins,” Ryan said. “I would trade any personal accolades for a couple
of victories. As far as individual performance goes, a lot of credit goes to my
teammates for pushing me and helping me get better week in and week out and my
coaching staff for keeping me accountable. I just want to be consistent. I am
not trying to be a superstar or anything. I just want to fit in this system and
keep on doing what I am doing right now.”
When Ryan arrived at Michigan State as a freshman, he was a
260-pound outside linebacker. As a sophomore, he moved to defensive end before
finally settling in at defensive tackle as a junior and senior.
All of the moving around made it hard for Ryan to get
comfortable at a position and project himself toward an NFL career.
When the 2007 NFL Draft rolled around, Ryan had high hopes after
a solid senior season. Those hopes didn’t have him thinking he’d last until the
154th overall selection in the fifth round, when the Rams finally called his
That slight immediately was burned into Ryan’s memory and he has
used it as impetus for his play since.
“It means a lot,” Ryan said. “Looking back to April of 2007 when
I was passed on. That has been my motivation since I have been in this league. A
lot of guys that were picked before me aren’t in the league anymore. A lot of
them are on practice squads or have been on three or four teams. So when I came
into this league, a lot of people looked beyond me as a player but most of all
as a person.”
Ryan slowly eased his way into the league as a rookie, playing
in all 16 games with no starts and posting 48 tackles, a pair of sacks and a
forced fumble. It was a promising beginning but he was only scratching the
surface of his potential.
Last year, Ryan got his first opportunity to be a starter,
playing in every game and starting 12 of them with 46 tackles and a pass
While Ryan was making a strong impression, the nuances of the
game hadn’t quite clicked in.
When he wasn’t playing, Ryan was paying attention in the meeting
rooms and the locker room, trying to soak in everything he could from the
experienced veterans around him.
If indeed this is his breakthrough season, Ryan believes it has
more to do with those who have shown him the way than any particular thing he’s
“I think more so it’s maturity,” Ryan said. “I had to learn how
to be a pro. When I first got here, I had no idea about how to prepare each and
every week. Now I have been around guys like Leonard, James Hall, Hollis, Corey
Chavous, Torry Holt. Those guys prepared me to be able to play like this. Every
week you have got to take pride in your job and take pride in what you put on
the field. To me, it’s just maturity and preparation week in and week
Although he’s only in his third year in the league, Ryan is wise
beyond his years. He’s quietly embraced a leadership role and is now just as
much of a mentor to his younger teammates as the likes of Little and Hall.
A number of teammates now cite Ryan as one of the locker room
leaders. The media has taken to speaking with Ryan every Thursday to get his
breakdown of the opponent, a job that used to be occupied by veteran La’Roi
Glover and could someday lead to a second career in broadcasting for the
“Clif may not have been playing in the league a long time but he
seems like he’s a seasoned veteran,” coach Steve Spagnuolo said. “He gets in
there and battles. He’s vocal. He shows up every day in practice and those are
the kind of guys you like.”
Make no mistake, though Ryan doesn’t play a position that comes
with much glory, he still wants to be rated among the best in the league.
“It’s just watching guys at your position, guys like Pat
Williams, Ryan Pickett, Jammal Williams, Vince Wilfork, Casey Hampton,” Ryan
said. “Those are guys I strive to be. I want to be mentioned as one of the best
nose tackles in this game so watching guys like that I try to implement things
from their game into my game.”
Ryan says his knowledge of opponents comes from his ongoing
desire to always outprepare and understand what he’s up against on a week to
week basis. And it doesn’t hurt to be aware of the other guys in the league to
use as a measuring stick for his own performance.
“To be involved in something you have got to know your
opponent,” Ryan said. “You have got to know other guys you are competing with at
your position. I never know if I am ever going to need a job again so I have got
to know who the best is at my position so I can be on their level or above their
level so I can be in this business for a long time because I love this game, I
take pride in my work.”