What will we see from Akeem Ayers? Brian Filipiak, Inside The Pylon’s expert on the trenches, has reviewed the film. In this two-part series, Filipiak explores Ayers’s ability as a pass rusher, run stopper and coverage linebacker.
Injury and Opportunity
It’s a common refrain from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick – a go-to non-answer often leaving reporters stymied and their notebooks empty.
But when media members asked Belichick about how linebacker Akeem Ayers would be used, his “we’ll see” response may have been an honest assessment of the situation.
Filling a Hole?
New England acquired Ayers early last week in a trade with the Tennessee Titans in an effort to shore up a depleted front seven, which recently lost linebacker Jerod Mayo for the season and linebacker/defensive end Chandler Jones for at least a month, if not longer.
Ayers, a fourth-year player and former 2nd-round pick out of UCLA, started 43 of his first 48 games in the NFL playing mostly linebacker and some defensive end. In 2012, Ayers led the Titans in tackles (66, plus 38 assists) and finished second in sacks (6), but followed up the breakout season with a statistically disappointing 2013 campaign (37 tackles, 12 assists, 1 sack) in which he battled nagging ankle and knee injuries and saw his playing time decrease.
Odd Man Out
This past offseason, three things happened to further derail the 25-year-old’s promising career, at least in Tennessee. First, the Titans almost completely revamped both their coaching staff and their on-field philosophy, implementing a new 3-4 base defense under defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who replaced Jerry Gray and his 4-3 base defense. Then, Ayers underwent offseason surgeries to repair patellar tendons in both knees. Finally, the Titans signed free agent Shaun Phillips – an experienced 3-4 outside linebacker coming off a 10-sack season.
Whether because of difficulties adjusting to the scheme change and/or a slow recovery from injuries, Ayers failed to beat out the competition at outside linebacker and was relegated to the Tennessee bench through the first seven weeks of the 2014 season, playing just 10 defensive snaps. And now he’s in New England.
A Fine Debut
Ayers made his Patriots’ debut against the Chicago Bears in Week 8 and we did catch a glimpse of how Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia can use Ayers. He contributed on special teams and also logged a cleanup sack near the end of the first half on his second defensive snap of the game.
Ayers was used almost exclusively as a pass-rusher in the Patriots nickel defense. With a one-sided score in favor of New England, Ayers played more than he or Belichick likely expected, especially given the short amount of time the linebacker had to get acclimated to a new defensive system.
By looking at his 2013 season, we can put together a more complete picture of what Ayers can potentially bring to the Patriots defense.
Akeem The Pass Rusher
At 6’3” and 255 pounds, Ayers has the size and speed to rush the passer from several positions using a variety of techniques.
With the Titans facing the Houston Texans in a Week 2 matchup last year, Ayers (#56) showed off his strength with an effective bull rush against All-Pro left tackle Duane Brown:
Lined up wide of the tackle, Ayers fires out of his stance and takes five powerful strides forward before driving his hands into the chest of Brown. While he does not get to the quarterback, Ayers is able to push the tackle backward into the pocket, forcing a hurried throw from the quarterback.
Later on in the same game, Ayers is now a middle linebacker in the Titans’ dime package. He and his fellow linebacker will blitz up the middle:
Ayers slowly creeps up over the guard and times the snap perfectly on his blitz through the A gap. Using just a simple power-speed rush, Ayers easily shrugs off the guard. Realizing that the quarterback is beginning his throwing motion before he can get there for a sack, Ayers extends his arms and leaps into the passing lane, deflecting the pass into the waiting arms of his safety for an interception.
In Week 3 against the San Diego Chargers, Ayers manages to bring down the quarterback by utilizing a club and rip maneuver:
Once again aligned wide of the tackle at defensive end, Ayers will get off the line quickly and drive towards the outside shoulder of the blocker, lending the impression of a bull rush or shoulder dip move. Instead, Ayers stutter-steps and uses his inside arm to club (or, in this case, slap) the bicep of the tackle before bringing his outside arm in an uppercut (rip) motion through the blocker’s arm, freeing him from the block to sack the quarterback.
Against the New York Jets in Week 4 of the 2013 season, Ayers continues to display his versatility, lining up to rush the passer as an outside linebacker out of the Titans 4-3 base defense:
The fullback protecting the QB is no match for Ayers’ free release and acceleration off the line. Using a quick stutter-step to the inside, Ayers forces the blocker to lose leverage to the outside. He then cuts back around the fullback, hitting the QB for a near-sack and a safety.
Ayers does seem to rely heavily on two moves: a speed bull rush or a shoulder dip move, both wide-angle rush techniques. While these moves are effective at times, most technically sound offensive tackles and blocking tight ends are able to force Ayers wide and safely behind the QB, particularly after seeing it a few times. He tries to mix in a spin move on occasion but has inconsistent footwork that often leaves him spinning into the block instead of off it. Improving his technique on the spin move would greatly enhance his pass rushing repertoire.
Overall, despite the drop-off in sacks from his 2012 to 2013 seasons, Ayers appeared to remain a competitive sub-package pass rusher capable of pressuring from both the perimeter and up the middle as an off-the-line linebacker. He does seem best suited as a pass rusher when aligned on the line of scrimmage as an outside linebacker or in a three-point stance wide of the tackle/tight end ‒ which is precisely how the Patriots used him (#52):
The four clips above show how Ayers was able to create pressure by utilizing wide-angle speed-based rushes off the edge, but later struggled as the offensive tackle adjusted by gaining more width and depth to stretch the defender. He will need to vary his moves within a game to keep blockers honest.
Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.