First, he's a traditional strongside linebacker. I've had NFL Sunday Ticket only since 2006, and in that time the Titans had never really employed a true strongside linebacker. I know some about the position, of course, but following a player and his career progression on a team you follow obsessively gives a different perspective.
Second, he's an interesting player. The Titans got him early in the second round, and a number of draft evaluations I read had him slated to go higher than that. His physical talent is fairly obvious, but at the same time, his production rarely matched that talent. How could he translate his game to the NFL?
Third, well, I saw him make some rookie mistakes, but the sort that you have to pay attention to why, not just what, to realize. Looking at his play in more detail made me think studying him might be a useful, in addition to informative and interesting, exercise.
Just because I wanted something to write about, I picked three games where he was relatively active to re-watch with a concentration on his play. In this part one, in addition to the introduction, I'll include some notes on his play in the Titan's Week 12 home win against the Buccaneers. In tomorrow's post, I'll write about his play in Week 3 against the Broncos and then in Week 16 against the Jaguars, add some thoughts on his progression over the course of the season, and then draw some conclusions.
First, though, his performance against the Buccaneers. He picked up a season-high eight tackles this game, six of them solo. A tackle is to my mind normatively neither good nor bad; somebody has to make a tackle on about every offensive non-touchdown non-incompletion, and you get just as many points for a tackle for no gain on third-and-one as you do for a tackle on a 57-yard gain.
The customary disclaimers apply to this analysis: I'm doing this off TV footage (in this case, I opted for ShortCuts for greater picture quality, not Game Rewind), without knowledge of the actual playcall, scheme, or what Ayers' assignment was on any given play. I mention this disclaimer first, because I try not to write in a particularly timorous fashion. At least one of the things I say in this post will be wrong and/or misleading. Such is as it always is in this kind of post. Consider yourself duly warned.
Since what I'm trying to do is establish a baseline for his play, I'll mention a long list of datapoints, themes, and sub-themes I noticed:
- Ayers played every snap (60, plus a spike and a false start) this game, in both base 4-3 personnel, 4-2-5 nickel, and the 3-2-6 Ruby package. It's possible I left out a personnel grouping (3-3-5), as I wasn't focusing on that.
- He did not line up with his hand in the ground once.
- I had him lining up pretty much at or just off the line of scrimmage on precisely one-half (30) of those 60 plays and at or near the line of scrimmage the other half.
- Probably more schematic than anything about Ayers (tomorrow's post will confirm or reject this), he lined up off the line of scrimmage much more frequently in the second half.
- I went through and gave rough grades. On plays I marked as bad/very unimpressive, I saw him ending up out of position on a screen that went for big yardage after a playfake and fake end-around, a lot of lousy pass rushing, some times getting sealed out of the play, and the occasional struggle with Bucs FB Erik Lorig.
- Some plays, I just wasn't sure grade to give him. This included a number of plays in pass coverage where he just wasn't on the screen, and some I didn't find assignments clear. One play in particular, a Bucs TD on a goalline slant pass late in the first half, his potential responsibilities might, or might not, have included buzzing that route and making Josh Freeman's life harder.
- I also went through and marked some plays I thought were good or particularly good. While he struggled some with Lorig, I thought he had some very nice moments against the Bucs' tight ends, including Kellen Winslow and Luke Stocker. That included a couple plays in coverage, both what looked like man and zone, plus plays where he had outside or backside contain and defeated the block to disrupt the play.
- The majority of plays, I thought his performance was either ok/unremarkable or generally irrelevant to what happened on the play.
- I hardly ever write about player technique, just because I don't know it and have trouble recognizing it to the extent I do know it, but I'm pretty sure from watching this game in detail that Ayers' pass rush technique stinks. That is, of course, correctable, and is one of the things Keith Millard has been working on this offseason.