The numbers would have you believe the J Train has lost some of its steam.
Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi has cooled off considerably following that red-hot October and early November streak of big games that thrust him onto the national scene.
Those days of 204 yards against Pittsburgh, followed by 214 yards against Buffalo became 111 yards against the New York Jets, then 79 yards, then 77, and in two of the past three weeks Ajayi has been in the 40-yard-per-game orbit.
Indeed, he has averaged under 3-yards per carry in two of the past three games for his worst stretch of the season.
But the Dolphins believe this is no time to be looking at Jay Ajayi sideways. The running back, nicknamed the J Train, hasn’t necessarily been derailed.
It’s more the other things going around the running game that has negatively impacted Ajayi’s production of late -- things such as injuries to key players, and the quality of the competition.
“Coming off some of these injuries we’ve had up front, some moving pieces, and we played some good defensive fronts, that’s the one thing that myself and coaches have been reminding him of,” coach Adam Gase said Wednesday. “Just remember we have played some good teams … And the teams that have been good on defense, it’s been the front seven that has been the strength of all of these teams that we’ve played.”
So the competition has been good. The Ravens, for example, have the NFL’s No. 1 rush defense. they limited Ajayi to 45 yards on 18 carries. Arizona, last week’s opponent, is No. 4 against the run. And Ajayi rushed for only 48 yards on 20 carries against them.
So the other guys are getting paid, too.
But, my personal opinion here because it is my darn column, that’s not a good excuse. It’s a fact to consider. But it shouldn’t be an excuse.
Good running teams run the ball well most of the time, including against good opponents, just like good pass teams don’t simply fold up and stop passing when facing a good secondary. Can you imagine the New England Patriots saying they cannot throw the football against good secondaries? Or the Seahawks saying they can’t play good defense against good quarterbacks?
You’re either good at something or you’re not.
This, however, is a more acceptable rationale for Ajayi’s recent struggles:
The Dolphins offensive line is beat up. Mike Pouncey was placed on injured reserve this week and it is no coincidence Ajayi’s roll began when Pouncey got into the lineup after missing games early in the season because of his initial hip injury.
Pouncey played five games and the Dolphins running game nearly doubled in production. Pouncey went out and we’re back to pedestrian numbers.
That’s not the only problem. Other players also involved in the running game have also been injured and although they are now playing.
“When we have some guys that have some limitations as far as (Branden Albert) is playing with one hand, (Laremy) Tunsil comes back from a (shoulder) injury and he’s not 100 percent,” Gase said.
He didn’t mention Jarvis Landry’s shoulder has been hurting so that might affect blocking downfield. DeVante Parker had a back injury so ditto on the downfield blocking.
So the assignment for the Dolphins relative to Ajayi and their running game is to remain patient and continue to believe what the running back is doing is good enough.
That’s been hard for Ajayi.
“It’s tough not to get frustrated because you want to be able to create that output,” Ajayi said. “You want that production. It’s tough when you look at the end of the game and the stats kind of don’t showcase what you feel is going on out there. But that’s what it is and it’s motivating to keep going out there, keep doing maybe something more, just trying to keep pushing myself to get back to the high production level we had before.”
But, again, the Dolphins don’t feel like it’s about Ajayi.
“I don’t want him to change anything he’s doing,” Gase said, “because he’s doing exactly what we need him to do and he’s doing -- exactly the same thing he did when we had those big-time rushing numbers.
“He just can’t get frustrated thinking it’s something with him, where that’s why the running game can be special sometimes, because it takes the entire unit. It takes the front, it takes the tight ends, it takes the quarterback making sure he’s doing his job and making an out. It takes the wide receivers blocking down the field, and then it takes him just being patient and doing exactly what everybody knows he’s supposed to do. And he’s done that.”
Ajayi understands, but all that being said, he still wants to regain the magic of his prior production.
“We have to find what we were doing before, how to get that high production, and find ways to get back to that,” he said.
The Dolphins had success running the football against the Jets in the first meeting. And the Jets, a Top 5 run defense at the time, have struggled some in that department lately and are now No. 12 against the run.
But Gase, Ajayi and most folks within the Dolphins organization believe they are close to having some solid success, if not the eye-popping kind of accomplishments from earlier this season.
“I mean we’re a shoelace away so many different times to where all of a sudden that 5-yard gain is going to be 25.” Gase said. “We’ve been close quite a few times. Last game, there were a couple of them that were just so close to being explosive runs. I know everybody wants to get caught up with the numbers, but we’re kind of looking at each play individually and saying, ‘OK, this was good. We’re close. We’ve just got to finish this a little better.’
“So I’m not getting discouraged by numbers right now. I know if we keep giving him touches and giving him opportunities, and we get back in a rhythm and we get guys healthy as we finish this thing out, I think we’re going to start having the number production be better.”