Jay Ajayi’s eyes were red and swollen.
However, the Miami Dolphins running back’s eyes weren’t watering because the wind-chill factor was 2 degrees at game time Sunday at Heinz Field.
The emotion of a breakout season, both from an individual and team standpoint, ending with a thud was difficult for Ajayi to accept.
The Pittsburgh Steelers rolled to a 30-12 victory in an AFC wild-card game in the Dolphins’ first playoff appearance since 2008. Ajayi was held to 33 yards on 16 carries, his lowest yardage total since the second-year pro made his first career start Oct. 9 against the Tennessee Titans.
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While Ajayi began to remove his uniform, injured quarterback Ryan Tannehill walked over and the two embraced in the quiet locker room.
“You had a great year, a lot to be proud of,” Tannehill said.
Indeed, Ajayi came a long way. He went from being left home by first-year coach Adam Gase for the season opener at Seattle to finishing the regular season with 1,272 yards on 260 carries and eight touchdowns.
But Sunday wasn’t the time for Ajayi to reflect on the season.
“From a team standpoint, this is always going to hurt because we didn’t get to where we wanted to go as a team,” Ajayi said. “We didn’t come here to play in only one game and go home.
“From a personal standpoint, over time I’m sure I’ll be able to feel good about what happened. Not today, though. This wasn’t a good ending.”
Ajayi burned the Steelers for 204 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries in his second start on Oct. 16 when the Dolphins, then 1-4, pulled a 30-15 upset of Pittsburgh at Hard Rock Stadium.
That was the beginning of a stretch of nine wins in 10 games for the Dolphins. Ajayi also went on to become the fourth running back in NFL history to have three 200-yard rushing games in one season, joining O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and Tiki Barber.
However, with Tannehill sidelined with a knee injury and replaced by veteran backup Matt Moore for a fourth game in a row, the Steelers often brought eight or nine defenders to the line of scrimmage to stop Ajayi.
“They did a good job,” Ajayi said. “They played us really tough and were very physical. We never got the running game going.”
Gase didn’t have any easy answers for why the Dolphins went from rushing for 222 yards against the Steelers in the regular season to 52 yards in the playoffs.
“It’s probably something we’re going to have to look at when we watch this film and try to figure out where we went sideways,” Gase said. “The first thing I can say is that they had a little more penetration. We didn’t execute as well as I’m sure all of us wanted to.
“We’ll look at it schematically to see if there was anything we weren’t doing quite right compared to what they were doing. That’s going to take a minute to go back and look at everything.”
The Dolphins also had to get away from the running game because they were playing from behind almost from the start. The Steelers had touchdown drives of 85, 90 and 83 yards on their first three possessions to build a 20-3 lead early in the second quarter.
Ajayi’s frustrations also extended beyond the lack of yardage.
He was penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct in the second quarter when he went after Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier, who had been called for a roughing-the-passer penalty because of a helmet-to-helmet hit on Moore.
“It was a good football play,” Ajayi said of Shazier’s hit. “I was just standing up for my quarterback at the time. I saw him take a hard hit and I reacted.”
Ajayi was forced from the game with 8:45 left when tackled by Bud Dupree after a 5-yard run. Ajayi’s shoulder was hanging limp from his arm, but he said the injury was not serious.
“I just re-aggravated an injury from earlier,” he said. “It’s not going to have any effect on me getting ready for next season.”