Just a month ago, Jay Ajayi was on pace to produce one of the NFL’s three highest per-carry rushing averages this decade.
Now, he is no longer even in the top five in the league in that category this season.
Ajayi’s production has declined appreciably in the past month — he hasn’t topped 61 yards rushing in any of the past four games — but coach Adam Gase and offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen dispute any suggestion that Ajayi is remotely to blame for this.
“We want Jay to consistently do what he’s been doing, and he hasn’t changed one thing he has done,” Gase said.
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On Saturday, Ajayi faces a Buffalo team that he trampled for 214 yards on 28 carries (a 7.6 average) in their Oct. 23 meeting, the second victory in Miami’s six-game winning streak.
And Bills coach Rex Ryan says Ajayi can expect a change-up from his defense.
“We’re going to make some adjustments,” Ryan said. “He’s a heck of a back.”
The Dolphins’ recent difficulties running the ball appear to be a byproduct of ineffective blocking and opponents focusing on stopping the run.
“Teams are doing a good job of stacking the box,” said Ajayi. “They want to keep our run game at bay. But that doesn’t matter to me. We have to find ways to produce.”
After a five-game stretch in which he rumbled for 204, 214, 111, 79 and 77 yards, Ajayi has been limited to 45, 61, 48 and 51 yards the past four games.
Ajayi, who at one time was averaging six yards per carry, is now at 4.8 (sixth in the league) after averaging 2.5, 5.1, 2.4 and 2.7 the past four games.
“We don’t want him to be frustrated because we haven’t quite got the results we are looking for,” Gase said. “We’ve run into some tough defenses. We have another one ahead of us this week. They are going to try to stop the run and make us one-dimensional. That’s what most teams have tried to do with us the last nine games.”
Gase makes a good point about tough run defenses. In the past four games, Miami has faced teams that rank second (Baltimore), fifth (Arizona) and eighth (Jets) in rushing yards allowed per attempt.
But Ajayi mustered only 45 yards on 18 carries against a San Francisco team that relinquishes more yards per carry than any other team. And the Bills are 22nd in rushing yards allowed per attempt.
Gase was asked this week whether Ajayi’s diminished production stems primarily from center Mike Pouncey’s absence due to a season-ending hip injury.
“Anytime you lose one of the best players in football at their position, it’s never easy to replace that guy,” Gase conceded.
The difference is striking:
During the five games that Pouncey played, Ajayi ran for 650 yards on 109 carries (5.96 per attempt).
During the seven other games that Ajayi has appeared, he produced 357 rushing yards on 103 attempts (3.5 per carry).
With teams often stacking the box to stop Ajayi, the Dolphins have slipped to 16th in rushing yards per game and 14th in rushing yards per attempt.
And most of the Dolphins’ offensive linemen have seen their run-blocking grades tumble in Pro Football Focus rankings.
Among 73 qualifying guards, PFF ranks Laremy Tunsil 55th and Jermon Bushrod 72nd as run blockers. Among 79 qualifying tackles, PFF has Ja’Juan James 17th but Branden Albert a surprisingly low 75th.
Overall, Ajayi ranks ninth in the league in rushing with 1,007 yards but isn’t pleased with the past month.
“We’ve got to go out, no matter what the excuses are, and get it done,” he said. “We’ve got to get better on the ground.”
But Christensen said it would be wrong for anyone to suggest that Ajayi isn’t hitting holes as quickly or as powerfully as he did during his back-to-back weeks topping 200 yards.
“It absolutely has not been the case,” Christensen said. “A lot of times, he’s doing a lot of things better than even the 200-yard games. I think he’s running the ball better at this time of year than at any time during the season. He has stayed fresh. I thought he’d be beat up.”
The drop in production, Christensen said, is simply a result of teams making Ajayi and Miami’s run game a focus of their defensive game plan.
“It seems like a good idea to have your name plastered all over that ESPN for 200-yard games, except that it goes up in everyone’s locker rooms, and defensive meeting rooms, too,” Christensen said. “You get a little more resistance, so that’s the downside of it.”
▪ Byron Maxwell missed practiced for a third consecutive day because of an ankle injury, diminishing hopes of his availability for Saturday. “He hasn’t gone as well as we thought he would this late in the week,” Gase said. Linebacker Jelani Jenkins also sat out from practice.
▪ Former NFL receiver Chad Ochocinco visited practice.