When the Tennessee Titans went into the draft in April, one of their main objectives was to improve the linebacker position. Even the Titans are surprised at finding a solution so soon among this year's draft class.
Rookie linebackers Akeem Ayers, a second-round pick from UCLA, and Colin McCarthy, a fourth-rounder from Miami, have stepped in and played so well for Tennessee that they now rarely leave the field. They play not only in the base defense, but in Tennessee's nickel package.
Ayers was inserted into the lineup as a strongside linebacker from the moment the Titans drafted him, while Tennessee signed free agent Barrett Ruud to a one-year contract to man the middle until McCarthy got some experience.
Due to a groin injury Ruud suffered Nov. 6 against Cincinnati, McCarthy has gotten his opportunity much earlier than anticipated. Ayers' role has slowly increased as he has learned the nuances of the defensive scheme.
"I think it's real encouraging to see someone develop as quickly as all of the sudden (McCarthy) is in a short period," Titans coach Mike Munchak said. "Akeem is the same way, and we are starting to try to use Akeem more on third down. So he is getting more reps. ... We are adding more to his plate because he is ready for that now. It is exciting to watch your young players get better."
Since getting regular playing time three weeks ago, McCarthy has been a key factor in the defense's success. In those three games, he has 33 tackles and had his first career interception that preserved Sunday's 23-17 win over Tampa Bay. For the year has five tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
For McCarthy, it's just part of the job description as a middle linebacker.
"We need to make impact plays throughout the game. There are a lot of plays out there to be made, and playing middle linebacker, when you've got the opportunity, then you've got to take advantage of them," he said.
McCarthy has proven to a quick study, too, as his interception came from an adjustment on a play the Bucs ran earlier on a pass to tight end Kellen Winslow.
"It was a play we went through in practice. Earlier in the game, they kind of did that 10-yard (pattern) and just kind of sat there, so it was just a matter of time before they did the shake and tried to hit us deep," he said. "Coach (Jerry) Gray had a great game plan. We went over that this week, and when they throw it at you, you've just got to catch it. That was my main focus."
Ayers' main focus has been settling into one spot and learning the system on the fly. At UCLA, he spent some time at defensive end, and played both inside and outside linebacker. With the Titans, he can settle into the strongside spot over the tight end and play.
"Akeem has kind of bounced around a little bit. He played some defensive end in college, played some linebacker, played inside, played outside," Titans linebackers coach Frank Bush said. "He's still learning to be a good solid outside linebacker, and on top of that, we've started to give him nickel stuff. There's just a lot of learning, a lot of new stuff for him. He's taken on the stuff in our base package. He's learned that, and he's kind of owned that information. Now he's moving forward with our nickel stuff."
The Titans moved Ayers into the nickel partly because they wanted to get more from a guy they consider one of their better playmakers. It has paid off, as Ayers now has 54 tackles, two sacks and six quarterback pressures.
"Since I'm able to stay in the game more, I'm able to get a feel for the game. When you're in and out, it's hard for me personally to get a feel for the game," Ayers said. "But when you're in on third down and you get the opportunity to rush the quarterback or drop into coverage, you get the opportunity to do more things. . I've always believed in myself, but it's just taken time to prove to them that I know the defense and that they can trust me in the game."
There are still the occasional rough moments, but the plays the rookies have made have outweighed their mistakes.
"It's a long way to go. Those guys are a work in progress," Munchak said. "It's their rookie years and they are learning a lot and seeing a lot of things for the first time. So it's encouraging what we are seeing, but it is an opportunity for the guys to make a lot more plays the more they play."
Notes: Five Titans sat out Wednesday's practice nursing injuries, while three others were limited. Those out: center Eugene Amano (hip), cornerback Tommie Campbell (left shoulder), McCarthy (knee), Barrett Ruud (groin) and tackle David Stewart (calf). ... Players who were limited were tight end Jared Cook (concussion) and defensive ends Jason Jones (knee) and Derrick Morgan (ankle). ... All except Ruud are expected to return to practice soon and have a chance to play Sunday at Buffalo.