ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --
In eight games, Ayers has set a new career high with 28 tackles, including 1.5 sacks. He has bounced back from his injury with 10 tackles in the three games since returning on Nov. 22 in San Diego. The 2009 first-round pick also forced his first fumble of the season in last week's loss in Arizona.
Ahead of Sunday's road finale in Oakland, Ayers sat down with DenverBroncos.com to discuss his progress in the defense, rehab from injury and lessons learned from a tough season.
What do you think has been the biggest difference between your rookie season and now?
"I think I've matured a lot more, and things that I didn't necessarily know how to deal with as a rookie, I've learned how to deal with. I've learned a lot more about being a pro and just how to approach every day. I'm still learning, and I'm going to continue to learn. And I think at the end of the day that will be what determines what type of career I have."
What's the best piece of advice you've gotten about playing in the NFL?
"I've gotten a lot of advice, man. (Assistant Linebackers Coach) Roman Phifer is probably the one that gives me the most advice. He's probably been the biggest influence on me since I've been here. He's just always telling me about steps and working towards goals and not letting things affect your goals. He's always whispering something in my ear. There's so many things that he's told me that it's hard for me to say that one is bigger than the other. But I can definitely say that he's the greatest influence I've had since I've been here."
After your foot injury, what was the rehab period like for you having to watch your teammates from the sideline?
"It was definitely tough, especially when you feel like you can help your team. At the time when I got hurt, I was definitely trying to pick up some momentum. Dealing with it mentally and then watching my team struggle was definitely hard. One thing I always say is that even though I'm not playing, the guys who are out there laying it all on the line that are playing have it a lot worse than I have it when they are sacrificing a lot and not getting the end result. Me being hurt isn't anything compared to guys going out and laying it on the line and not getting the results that they want."
During that time, what did you try to do to stay mentally and physically ready to contribute when you could come back?
"I just tried to stay in the film room and listen to what the other guys were saying, all the veterans -- D.J. (Williams), (Wesley) Wood(yard), Champ (Bailey), (Brian) Dawk(ins) -- and the coaches. I was just trying to stay in tune to what was going on. With my foot injury, there wasn't much I could do. I was pretty much just limping around, icing it every day. There wasn't much I could do. I couldn't run, couldn't lift, couldn't do too much. I had to stay into it mentally."
Given that, what does it mean to be back in the starting lineup now?
"It definitely means a lot. It's something I love to do, and being hurt -- I wouldn't wish that on anyone. It definitely takes a lot out of you to be hurt. To have to come back from it is tough for you mentally. It can be discouraging, especially when you come back and you expect to come back the way that you left. The reality of it is you very rarely do that. To come back and not have my foot and my body respond the way it was before I got hurt was kind of tough."
What can you take from a season where you've experienced so much personal and team adversity?
"One thing my father always taught me, 'What doesn't kill you will make a man out of you.' Going through tough times, that's what makes you stronger at the end of the day. This is definitely a tough time for everyone here. No one likes to lose. No one likes to be in the situation that we are, but we're going to deal with it and we'll keep fighting. Later on in life, whether it deals with football or raising children, you're going to be able to apply the lessons you learned from going through these tough situations."
Heading into your fourth career game against Oakland, what's your view of the Broncos' rivalry with the Raiders?
"It's definitely a game I love to play, especially going up there. It's tough and their fans are crazy. They love getting after it, and this year the team is having a pretty successful season, so they're going to be even more jacked up. Those guys are hard-nosed. They have a reputation for being hard-nosed, fast and physical. You play them twice, and any time you play a team twice, you've got to have some type of hate for them. We respect each other, but when the whistle blows, it's war between us."
You were a high school sprinter and returned kickoffs for the football team. Do you take pride in your athleticism?
"I definitely do. Every once in a while we may do a drill where I get to try to look athletic or I may drop back in coverage. Me and Mario (Haggan) or whoever get to joking about who is more athletic. I definitely take pride in my athleticism, but I doubt I can still do any of those things I did back then."
Have you asked Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer to give you some practice reps back deep returning kicks?
"I've asked him, but he didn't take it seriously. I really didn't mean it seriously. I know I'd probably get killed back there."
With the college bowl season coming up and your Tennessee Volunteers set to play
"I actually didn't know, so I'm going to go get started right now. I've been pretty busy lately, but I'm definitely going to go get started on that."
At Thanksgiving, you talked about your mother and aunt's great cooking. Are you a big fan of the holidays?
"I'm more of a holiday guy when it comes to being around family and things like that. For Christmas, when it comes to gifts and all that stuff I don't get too much into that. I definitely love being around family as much as I can. Most of the time with playing in college and now the only times I get to be around family are Christmas and Thanksgiving. I definitely take advantage of those opportunities. I love being around my family because I don't get a lot of time to do that, so whenver the holidays come around I love it."