The NFL has two 200-yard rushing feats this season. They’re both by Jay Ajayi.
They’re by the guy who fell to the fifth round of the draft last year because teams feared the long-term strength of his knee, the guy who’d never rushed for more than 42 yards in a game, who’d been left off the plane in the season opener so the Miami Dolphins could start the soon-to-retire Arian Foster as their best chance of beating the Seattle Seahawks.
But here he is, laughing at your claims of a fluke and powering his way to yards and wins. He’s leading the league in yards per carry and ranks fifth in rushing yards per game, sandwiched between DeMarco Murray and Le’Veon Bell in a herd of the running backs that should enter the conversation as elite.
He’s packed nearly a first half of a season into two monstrous games, begging the question: When is a fluke no longer a fluke?
It obviously wasn’t after one game, when Ajayi became Miami’s first feature back this season and ran roughshod over a Pittsburgh Steelers defense that has wilted to a few opponents in recent weeks. But last week’s output of 214 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries against the Buffalo Bills had to tug at the intrigue a little. Buffalo knew what Miami was going to do and struggled to stop it from the start of the game.
Even after Ajayi’s big day against them, the Bills rank as league average in rushing defense DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). Zach Brown has been one of the best track-and-tackle run stoppers in the league this season. And yet of Ajayi’s 11 first-half carries, 8 of them went for at least 9 yards. None went for more than 14 yards, though. It was the kind of consistent dredging Miami had long hoped to create in the running game in order to take pressure off Ryan Tannehill and to allow aging defensive linemen to freshly pressure opposing quarterbacks who have to throw their way back into games.
For two weeks, the plan has worked perfectly for the Dolphins after seemingly nothing went right over a 1-4 start. Ajayi is an easy change to point to, and his decisiveness, power and patience have been impressive. The runs on Sunday that went for 9 to 14 yards showed an ability to break through to the second level without a temptation to break it to the sideline. In his second season, Ajayi is a talented but not entirely complete running back, and his success comes from understanding the traits he can win with.
In that sense, it’s the Miami running game as a whole that deserves the credit for the new celebrity that has taken form. Settling on one consistent runner who can hit certain spots, follow pulling blockers and not trying to do too much was key, but this isn’t solely the Jay Ajayi show going on.
His two monster performances came in the two contests in which Miami had all five starting offensive linemen playing together. Two of the guards who’d started previous games, Dallas Thomas and Billy Turner, were cut days before the Pittsburgh game. Streamlining the running game to the same five linemen and one lead running back has simplified a power approach that relies as much on collaborative effort as any other facet of what the Dolphins can try to do. You see it again and again on Ajayi’s better runs, with a line moving a defense entirely one way to create a cutback lane, with guards pulling around and eliminating linebackers, with a back who knows where to go and what to do, as well as what not to.
The Miami running game will work as long as the continuity can keep somewhat intact. Ajayi’s second string, Arian Foster, retired this week, and while neither he nor the two cut linemen have skills that will particularly be missed, the fact they were all once starters and are now off the team highlight the lack of depth behind what the Dolphins currently have. And when Miami isn’t winning in the running game, it likely isn’t winning. Not with a quarterback who struggles to diagnose a pass rush or create plays down the field. Not with a defense that tires down so easily against running games that are built like its own.
Ajayi could continue to prove everybody wrong, but it feels safe to say he isn’t going to run for 200 yards every week. One big close-out run against the Steelers aside, he isn’t that kind of break-the-distance runner to not have to rely on a consistent work flow. But he’ll continue delivering these first-down pops as long as his health and that of his five offensive linemen continue to hold up. Their goal is to wear down what’s across from them, and now becomes a battle of whether they can do so without wearing down themselves.