Akeem Ayers: A Reclamation Project – Part 2

Akeem Ayers was traded to the Patriots and already recorded his first sack. Can he help shore up the run defense, too? Brian Filipiak looks at the tape and evaluates his potential to stop the ground attack and play in pass coverage.

In Part 1, Brian Filipiak looked at new Patriots linebacker/defensive end Akeem Ayers against the pass. Ayers is a potential asset as a sub-package pass rusher, having displayed good quickness, versatility and instincts when getting after the quarterback. In Part 2, Brian assesses Ayers abilities defending the run.

Akeem The Run Stopper

During a 2013 Week 7 matchup between Tennessee and San Francisco, Ayers demonstrated his ability to shed a block and make a tackle on the ball carrier on several occasions:

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Playing strongside linebacker, Ayers recovers well after initially falling for misdirection toward the weakside. He picks up the ball carrier and flows step-for-step with the runner, who is hiding behind the pull-blocking guard. Ayers initiates contact with the guard, getting his hands inside the chest area to cause separation from the block, and simultaneously grabs onto the ball carrier for a takedown.

A few snaps later, Ayers will once again get off a block and bring down the running back:

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His lateral movement along the line of scrimmage works in unison with the gap “fits” by the linebackers. It’s a perfect example of how to defend an off-tackle run that spills the ball carrier further outside instead of upfield.

Hot Pursuit

Later in the same game, Ayers flashes his speed and situational awareness in bringing down the ball carrier on a back-side pursuit tackle:

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Perhaps keying on the motioning receiver, Ayers shifts slightly to a head-up alignment over tight end Vernon Davis. It’s subtle, but it saves him a half-step towards the C gap before the ball is even snapped. Getting off the line quickly, Ayers easily rips through a half-hearted block attempt by Davis and tracks down the ball carrier for the tackle, preventing a potential huge gain outside the numbers.

Everyday Day He’s Shuffling

Ayers again shows his speed and sound lateral movement on this 2013 Week 10 play against the Jacksonville Jaguars:

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Aligned between the center and guard before the snap, Ayers is able to shuffle laterally to avoid the second-level block attempt by the flailing guard. The linebacker patiently flows parallel to the line of scrimmage before turning on the afterburners to close in on the ball carrier near the sideline.

Assessment: In Play

Much like his work rushing the passer, Ayers holds his own against the run. He does a good job of keeping himself in plays even when the run action is away from him. He’s a quick and fundamentally sound tackler who shows flashes of explosive sideline-to-sideline pursuit ability. And while he does sometimes struggle to get off double teams and tough angle blocks while aligned near the line of scrimmage, Ayers generally puts himself or his teammates in position to limit big plays on the ground.

Akeem In Coverage

Since former Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jerry Gray’s defense utilized a heavy amount of zone coverage, Ayers was rarely asked to pick up tight ends or running backs in man-to-man coverage.

In one of those rare instances, Ayers was caught out of position on a touchdown pass to tight end Jared Cook of the St. Louis Rams in Week 9 of the 2013 season:

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On the play, Ayers is the lone linebacker near the line of scrimmage. At the snap he immediately turns to pick up Cook, who runs a shallow crossing route. With help over the top, Ayers is able to break on the route and remain tightly underneath the intended receiver. But as Ayers turns to look for the ball he slows up slightly, creating an easier window for the TD connection.

Breaking-Up Is Hard To Do

However, late in the game on a crucial third-down play, Ayers makes amends with a pass breakup on Cook:

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At the snap, Ayers bails into a deeper-than-normal zone drop in order to protect the sticks (i.e., keep the receiver in his zone in front of the first down marker), and then proceeds to pick up Cook in his area. In particular, Ayers’s first responsibility is most likely to defend the curl route, which he does. The quarterback, who appears to be locked in on Cook the entire time, is forced to scramble out of the pocket because of pressure. Cook temporarily comes free for the pass, but Ayers is able to drive toward him and knock the ball from his hands.

Speed Kills

Going back to the Jaguars game in Week 10 of the 2013 season, Ayers demonstrated how his quickness and speed to the ball translate just as well in his coverage skills as they do in stopping the run:

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Despite some apparent confusion on the part of the Tennessee defense before the snap, Ayers is able to recognize the tight end leaking out on a seam route on the far side of the field. The linebacker sprints from hashmark to hashmark, batting away the pass and preventing a potential touchdown.

Assessment: Hit & Miss

In all, Ayers appears to be hit or miss in coverage depending on what was asked of him. While sound in his zone coverage drops with the ability to drive on the underneath receiver for a quick tackle, limiting yardage after the catch, Ayers struggles to keep up with backs running routes out of the backfield.

Interestingly, when the Titans used a Tampa 2 coverage scheme, Ayers often was the linebacker dropping back into the deep middle of the field, an indication that the team felt he was their most athletic option at the position. However, it seems likely that the Patriots will play to Ayers’ strengths and limit his coverage responsibilities.

Akeem In Conclusion

The future of Akeem Ayers with the Patriots, or any team for that matter, will be strongly tied to the health of his knees. The game film from last season showed an athletic player with a versatile skill set at both linebacker and defensive end that could aid the New England base and sub-package defenses, especially with Chandler Jones’ health status up in the air.

However, that film was also two surgically repaired patellar tendons ago. Week 8 against the Bears gave us a sneak peek at how Ayers can be used in obvious pass rushing situations, but Belichick and his staff will likely maintain their “we’ll see” approach in determining how big a role the linebacker can carve out in New England’s defense.

Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.

Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, the basics of run defense,  how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.

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