While prior to the season there had been a lot of hope that Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi could become the “bell cow” back for the team, a few weeks in it was looking like it would be anything but the case.
Flash forward to Week 8, and Ajayi is coming off back-to-back 200-yard games, and three straight games with a touchdown. Arian Foster, who had been brought in to take over the starting job, has retired and without a doubt Ajayi is “the man” in the backfield.
What changed? What turned Ajayi from an imminent bust to one of only four running backs in NFL history to post back-to-back 200-yard rushing games (along with O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell, and Ricky Williams)?
It’s a lot of things, really, though it starts with the running back himself.
Foster got the nod for the start of the season, Ajayi did exactly the opposite of what a dedicated athlete should do—he moped. After he was left in Miami while the team traveled to face the Seattle Seahawks, Ajayi started putting in full effort again. He spent more time working on film, worked harder in practice and pushed himself.
You can call it a “near-career death experience”—that moment when you realize one of the few chances you get is slipping away. In Ajayi’s case, he saw that and regrouped.
There were still struggles on the field, though, which you can attribute to several things. First, and foremost, if you only start putting real effort in after the season starts, there will be some lag time. It took a while for Ajayi to start looking like an NFL running back again, and even longer for him to fully earn head coach Adam Gase’s trust.
There were also injuries, both on the offensive line and in the backfield. The latter created the opportunity for Ajayi to get an increased amount of time on the field and carries, followed by the full load of both in Week 6 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The former was a problem for the offense as a whole though. Perhaps one of the biggest outside factors for Ajayi’s success has been the return of a healthy offensive line, especially left tackle Brandon Albert and center Mike Pouncey.
Without those two, the line was featuring a second or third string center and a rookie left tackle in Laremy Tunsil who just wasn’t ready for the job.
With Albert and Pouncey back, Gase was able to do a lot more shifting and pulling on the line, creating more holes and better blocking for Ajayi to take advantage of. The presence of both veteran linemen also seems to have taken some of the pressure of Tunsil, as he moved back to left guard and he has been playing very well. The stability of the left side of the line appears to have leaked over to the right side as well.
In the first five games, the line struggled to drive block for the running backs — forget getting upfield to road grade past the line of scrimmage. In Week 7, there were multiple examples of linemen getting downfield and laying out linebackers to clear the way at the second level. In fact, the offensive line is often shoving the defensive line backwards several yards, deep into the second level. All of which allows Ajayi to really shine as a runner.
Ajayi does an excellent job of running patiently but decisively, waiting for his hole to open and then blasting through it before the defense can react. He takes advantage of the seams his line creates and has the burst to get to the second level quickly.
Once he gets among the linebackers, his speed becomes a danger. While he’s not The Flash, Ajayi has more than enough to blow past defenders and can be elusive when a linebacker or defensive back closes for a tackle.
Ajayi has broken some long runs over the last two weeks—15 of 10 yards or more—and that is both a testament to his ability and the blocking up front.
So even though it seemed as if Ajayi was done, his hard work has allowed him to take advantage of a big opportunity in Miami. Now that we’ve seen his ability, and now that the offensive line is healthy, he has the chance to build on it and continue to make his presence felt in the NFL.