Ready to Bounce Back: Why Jay Ajayi is Primed to Produce in the Dolphins’ Playoff Hunt
Jay Ajayi came on to the scene much like his Dolphins—suddenly and out of no where. Yet, it’s no coincidence the team’s midseason turnaround began at the same time Jay Ajayi catapulted himself onto the national scene. Ajayi has already sketched his name into the Dolphins and NFL record books; he’s currently 1 of 4 running backs to ever run for 200 yards in consecutive games.
But, if you haven’t been playing attention as of late, the Jay Train hasn’t been humming as much as he did through weeks 6-9.
In fact, Jay Ajayi hasn’t rushed for over at least 80 yards since the Dolphins’ home victory against the Jets in Week 9—in other words, it’s been over a month.
While there haven’t been any sirens going off on South Beach or around the country for that matter, if Ajayi once again struggles on a nationally televised game against the woeful Jets, you can bet mummers will start to sheath through the cracks of the Dolphins’ headquarters’ walls in Davie.
The truth is, Jay Ajayi isn’t at fault for his dip in production. Based on the Dolphins’ offensive linemen’s health track record, it would have been naïve to believe it was going to be smooth sailing once they were all finally healthy. The Dolphins rode the wave while they could; in each of the three games the offensive line was intact from start to finish, Ajayi rushed for over 100 yards.
Since the Week 9 matchup against the Jets (who the Dolphins also play this weekend), there has been constant shuffle on the offensive line. Branden Albert has missed time due to a dislocated wrist, Laremy Tunsil missed time due to a shoulder and Mike Pouncey has been out since re-aggravating his hip in a practice while the team was on the West Coast; this week the Dolphins elected to place Pouncey on season-ending IR.
The injuries his offensive linemen have suffered obviously slowed down his production. However, the Dolphins’ offensive line currently stands at 80% healthy—a lot of teams would sign up for that. Which leads me to this: Jay Ajayi is one of the top running back’s in the league in creating yards after contact, opposing teams sometimes need a mob of defenders to bring down the 2nd year tailback.
Ajayi possesses an overall gifted skillset; there isn’t much he can’t do. Here, Ajayi uses his strength and elusiveness to power through the crowd of would-be-tacklers for a good gain on the ground.
There’s a reason his nickname is the Jay Train; he comes at defenders fast and with force and once defenders are on his train tracks, there isn’t much they can do. Adam Gase is fully aware of this. Even with opposing defensive coordinators electing to stack the box with up to eight defenders at times, Gase doesn’t go away from number 23.
While sometimes this leads to a run for no gain or negative yardage, it sets the tone for what the Dolphins want to do on offense.
The value of having a running back like Jay Ajayi in your offensive backfield goes far beyond the sheer numbers. Whether he’s rushing for 200 yards or 40, he’s making opposing defensive coaches lose sleep. It would be downright irresponsible not to account for a game-changing tailback such as Ajayi. As previously mentioned, this leads to defenses stacking extra defenders in the box, selling out just for a chance to hold Ajayi to a minimal gain.
Fans have already started seeing the benefits of this—Ryan Tannehill had arguably the best stretch of football in his career.
Here, the defense is selling out expecting the Dolphins to run the football. Instead, Ryan Tannehill drops back and takes advantage of the weak coverage.
The timing of Tannehill’s injury couldn’t be more frustrating, but Adam Gase can sleep easy knowing he has the Boise State product stationed in his backfield.
However, as good as Ajayi is at breaking tackles and creating yards after initial contact, it doesn’t mean he isn’t prone to suffer when the run blocking is poor. A prime example of this was against the San Francisco 49ers; the Dolphins went into the Week 12 matchup missing three offensive line starters: Laremy Tunsil, Branden Albert, and Mike Pouncey.
Against the worst run defense in the NFL, the Dolphins struggled. Ajayi carried the ball 18 times in the game for a total of 45 yards. His yard per carry average was a season low of 2.5 until this past weekend when he ran for 2.4 yards per carry against the Cardinals.
The ‘9ers surprisingly bottled up Ajayi on the afternoon.
It should be noted that San Francisco was daring Miami to beat them through the air all afternoon. However, against the worst run defense in the league, Miami couldn’t get anything going on the ground.
The Dolphins were down three starting offensive linemen and, in terms of run blocking, it definitely showed. Ajayi also struggled to gain any traction on the ground against the Cardinals. However, that was much more expected, as Arizona boasts one of the best run defenses in the league.
The issues were relatively the same; too much penetration into the backfield as well as not enough space for Ajayi to maneuver through.
Saturday night marks a great opportunity for the Dolphins to get their workhorse going again. The Jets’ run defense is a far cry from what it was when the Dolphins faced New York a little over a month ago. When Miami welcomed its division rival into Hard Rock Stadium in Week 9, the Jets were still sporting the best overall run defense in the National Football League, allowing under 75 yards on the ground per game. Times have rapidly changed for New York, as the Jets have become a middle of the pack rush defense, allowing over 100 rushing yards per game.
Here, Frank Gore goes untouched until he reaches the secondary. It is imperative that the Dolphins have the same success that recent Jets’ opponents have had at MetLife Stadium.
With starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill likely out the rest of the season, the ‘Phins must work even harder to establish the run game for fill-in starter Matt Moore. The Oregon State product hasn’t started a regular season game since Week 17 of the 2012 season. Not to mention, Moore’s wife welcomed the family’s third child on Monday. For all these reasons, it would be expecting too much for Matt Moore to be a difference maker come Saturday.
Jay Ajayi must be the difference maker—the Dolphins have to get him going again.
Two of Miami’s final three games will be played in frigid weather—the first being the aforementioned Saturday night matchup in East Rutherford with the Jets, and the second being on Christmas Eve at Buffalo. Whether or not the Dolphins reach the postseason for the first time since 2008 will rest on the shoulders of Jay Ajayi.
Even with Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins’ closing stretch to the season was considered a difficult one—without him, it should be considered borderline daunting. For Miami to secure at least two wins out of their last three games (many consider that enough to reach the postseason), they’ll need to play as close to mistake free football as they can, and win the time of possession battle. The Dolphins should be able to do both by continually feeding Ajayi, and most likely will need to in order to win at least two of their final remaining three games.
With Matt Moore, points could prove to be a case of feast or famine. Moore does possess a gun slinger mentality, which he put on display with his heave to Kenny Stills against the Cardinals. With defenses likely focusing on short throws underneath or to the flat, Moore will have his chances to sling it deep. However, Miami won’t find success with Moore firing deep consistently. The Dolphins will need to continue to make the running game the motor that keeps their offense going.
If Miami is going to have any shot at securing a playoff berth with Moore under center, Jay Ajayi will have to become the man in charge on offense.