Titans new defensive coordinator Jerry Gray has preached all offseason about getting bigger and stronger on defense, with a greater emphasis placed on stopping the run. Gray is well-aware of the team's defensive struggles the past two seasons after it was a top-10 stop unit in 2007 and '08, when the club made back-to-back postseason appearances.
Although it remains to be seen how quickly Gray can turn around his young defense, one thing that has become abundantly clear during the first two weeks of training camp is the impact rookie SLB Akeem Ayers is going to have on the unit.
Ayers, who has been working with the first-team defense since camp began, has been "everything we thought he was and more," according to a team source.
One of the biggest differences in Gray's new system is that the Titans will employ the "Sam" 'backer as a nine-technique (lined up over the tight end) on the line of scrimmage. Early indications are that the 6-3, 254 pound Ayers possesses more than enough strength and physicality for the position. His biggest focus early in camp has been on learning the technique.
"I'm really trying to improve on playing in the box," Ayers told PFW in a phone interview days before the Titans' first preseason game against the Vikings. "Just reading pulling guards and high hats, working on my keys … these are things I'm trying to get better at every day."
In addition to raving about Ayers' stoutness against the run and exciting potential as a pass rusher, the team source indicated Ayers has been very impressive picking up the new scheme, which Ayers acknowledged is similar to the one he played in at UCLA. The rookie also has shown the athleticism to cover tight ends, with a daily team observer calling him a "jack-of-all-trades."
Ayers said having experienced players like Barrett Ruud and Will Witherspoon to call on when he has questions has been a big help to him.
"[They have been telling me] to just work on starting off fast," he said. "Pretty much starting fast and finishing every game, every practice and every play strong."