Saturday, February 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Ayers brings welcome nastiness to Bucs defense

JACKSONVILLE — Robert Ayers shadowboxed some moves with rookie Noah Spence between pass rush drills against the Jaguars on Wednesday. Then deploying a two-man stunt and twist, they slipped past Jacksonville guard Mackenzy Bernadeau and left tackle Luke Joeckel, hitting a blocking dummy that represented a sitting duck quarterback.

Ayers, a free agent from the Giants who turns 31 on Sept. 6, is more than just a grizzled veteran with a surly disposition. He's exactly the type of partner in grime the Bucs' defensive line has lacked.

"Well, we brought in a veteran that can rush and that has played a lot of football in this league," defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. "He can help out the young guys and, not only that, he brings a nastiness to the D-line that we've been missing for a long time. He's just a naturally angry dude. Everybody can't be that, but he is, and it helps us out big time."

McCoy is right. Any member off the Bucs defensive line will tell you Ayers is the guy who ignites them. In the preseason opener last week at Philadelphia, Ayers had a quarterback hit, three pressures and a pass defensed in about a dozen snaps.

The Bucs had four sacks and left rookie quarterback Carson Wentz with a fractured rib.

Ayers' versatility and unselfishness also are huge assets. The 2009 first-round pick of the Broncos out of Tennessee has bounced between linebacker and defensive line throughout his career.

With the Bucs, he is starting at right defensive end in the base alignment, then moves to tackle while Spence, a rookie, takes his spot in nickel passing downs.

"I look at it as whatever position you put me, I can have an advantage," Ayers said. "I'm only 273, 274 (pounds), lot of times I'm going against guys that are 315 and sometimes two of them. So I understand my advantages and I understand how to attack things. I know my weaknesses. I try to study guys and always trying to learn from other players."

Of course, one player can't restore the aura for Tampa Bay on defense. One player can't guarantee somebody will record 10 sacks on this team for the first time since Simeon Rice in 2005. With Ayers, the Giants were third to last in the league with 23 sacks. Ayers had a career-high 91/2 in 12 games.

He scoffs at the notion that he embodies the nastiness the Bucs have been lacking.

"I honestly don't see it that way. I see Gerald McCoy setting the bar," Ayers said of the four-time Pro Bowl player. "That dude is a hell of a player. He's setting the bar so high, naturally as competitors, we all want to be where he is with his play. So I don't really look at it like that, I look at it like the standard is high here. The fans and this community, they're hungry for some wins, and that's what I'm trying to help bring and be a part of a great winning organization. That's how I look at it. If those guys think that way about me, I appreciate it. But I see other guys the same way they see me."

Ayers is part of a rebuilding plan on defense that had been in the works for nearly three years. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, the team's first-round pick out of Florida, and Dolphins free agent cornerback Brent Grimes were added. Spence was a second-round pick.

Ayers was attracted to the Bucs by the chance to play for defensive coordinator Mike Smith, the former Falcons head coach.

"Robert Ayers is a very versatile player," coach Dirk Koetter said. "We knew that when we got him, and he's definitely lived up to what we expected. What we didn't know was what a good leader and tempo-setter he was. He's exceeded expectations so far."

Ayers said he likes that his defensive line mates are unselfish and willing to work together.

"Noah is going to make things easy for me," Ayers said. "Gerald is going to make things easy for me. Will (Gholston) and Akeem (Spence) and everybody. I just want to return the favor. It's all about working as a unit.

"I think the best D-lines are the ones that work well together. There's a lot of D-lines that have a lot of talent, and I've been a part of them … and when you've got guys who are willing to be on the same page, willing to work for each other and willing to learn, that's all you can ask for."

As for his production, Ayers would do well to duplicate his performance with the Giants. But it's his grit that could make the Bucs great.

"I'm just trying to consistently get pressure," Ayers said. "Away from the sacks last year — I said it before I had 91/2, and I'll say it now — sometimes a sack is not going to come, but if I can have a game where I hit the quarterback five times and force him into an interception, but have no sacks, I'll take that over some sacks any day."

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