I started with Akeem Ayers yesterday, writing about why I wanted to write about him and giving a bit of an in-depth look at his play in the Week 12 game against the Buccaneers. For this post, I also watched in detail his performance against the Broncos in Week 3 and his day against the Jaguars in Week 16.
In those two games, I saw the same general mix of good and bad. Neither the Broncos nor the Jaguars spent much time running directly at him, either with a fullback (so I can’t compare his performance against them to his day against the Bucs’ Lorig) or without. For the most part, and as far as I could see (a key limitation dealing with a television broadcast), I thought he did a very nice job against the opposing tight ends in both the passing game and the running game, with only a couple miscues. He did lose his footing a couple times against the Jaguars, which may have been partly a turf issue.
As I was aware before this post, Ayers spent a lot more time in nickel as the season went on. He did play a little bit of nickel against the Broncos, splitting time with McRath and Witherspoon. As with the game against the Bucs, against the Jaguars he was in the game every or almost every time the Titans were in nickel. I didn’t count him as rushing much in either game, roughly half a dozen times compared to about three to five times that many coverage drops, and only one time in the dozen did I characterize the job he did rushing as good (what loooked like a rip move against Broncos RT Franklin).
By this point in my analysis, it’s beyond clear to me that for Akeem Ayers to be the player I’m pretty sure Jerry Gray wants him to be, the stand-up rushing complement to Kam Wimbley, then improving his pass rush results, which means improving his pass rush technique, is priority number one, two, and maybe three. Ayers talked during OTAs about how he was working with Keith Millard on his pass rush technique this offseason, focusing on his get-off, angle, and hand use.
When I talked about Ayers on Twitter earlier, draftnik Steve Palazzolo noted Ayers was another player who intrigued him, and pointed me to a study he’d done, noting that basically ever NFL LB pass-rusher had been a collegiate DE. Ayers was, of course, primarily a linebacker in college. That doesn’t damn him permanently, but I think it does speak to the level of pass rush technique improvement he needs to display to get to the point where he’s at where Jerry Gray wants him to be.
Part of Ayers’ problem seems to be that, as he and his trainer, Travelle Gaines, note in this interview, he didn’t really understand the work that you need to put in to be a successful player, especially not getting to see how NFL veterans train last offseason. Munchak described the difference in Ayers as night-and-day; yes, there’s some coach-speak involved there, but he was especially complimentary of a couple players and one of them was Ayers. (Links in this paragraph to video interviews.)
I’m not at the point where I’m ready to declare Akeem Ayers’ improvement as a pass rusher is the key to the Titans defense this offseason. Paul Kuharsky was right, though, that Wimbley can’t fix the problem by himself. He’s poised to be one piece of a puzzle, likely the most valuable piece, but he’s probably going to be the guy Gray talks about with his hand in the dirt who can get after the quarterback. Ayers seems like by far the most likely candidate to fill that role.