What we see is that Jay Ajayi was the fourth-leading rusher in the NFL last season and he did a lot of that work by simply breaking tackles or treating contact like a nuisance. That’s what we care about. That’s the bottom line.
But the interesting thing is getting to where the Dolphins and Ajayi are today was a process. It’s actually an ongoing process because the team and player are still not quite fully comfortable where they’re at even as Ajayi gained 122 yards and averaged 4.4 yards per carry last week in the season-opener against the Los Angeles Chargers.
So let’s look at some of the stages of this momentum gathering force that is Ajayi running for the Dolphins.
The first stage of what has become a very good running game was the Dolphins and Ajayi basically finding one another. Starting last season, everyone knows the story of Ajayi being left home while the team traveled to Seattle for the season-opener.
Ajayi needed an attitude adjustment. And the Miami coaching staff, new to the roster, didn’t really know if Ajayi was any good or not.
So when the team returned home, Ajayi had the choice of making the necessary adjustment in attitude or pouting. He adjusted. He showed maturity. He practiced hard. Ajayi did everything the coaching staff wanted and that got him a grand total of zero starts and 18 carries the next three games.
Hang in there, people, they were building toward something. And the coaching staff was thinking four games into the season they was starting to see something in Ajayi.
Then Ajayi got to start against the Tennessee Titans last Oct. 9. And as the Dolphins were getting blown out, Ajayi was one of maybe a handful of Miami players who delivered a solid game.
On Oct. 16, 2016, the Dolphins unleashed Jay Ajayi. He gained 204 yards on 25 carries against the Pittsburgh Steelers and suddenly Miami had a running back and a running game.
So everything was perfect by then, right?
You see, Ajayi had long been familiar with the zone blocking (and running) scheme the Dolphins began employing under coach Adam Gase. But Gase had always run an inside zone scheme.
And Ajayi loves to run outside zone plays.
So at some point after the Pittsburgh game, Ajayi told Gase he prefers outside zone.
And Gase listened and then began to whack his head against a wall because he’s always coached inside zone.
Gase didn’t know how to scheme up outside zone to meet his own satisfaction. And the Dolphins were already six games into a season, which suggested changing at that point would be difficult.
Gase eventually figured it out. He made the necessary changes. He adjusted the blocking schemes. He shelved the inside zone he’s used most of his career and unveiled outside zone because the running back that just gained 204 yards in a game, the guy Gase intended to ride the rest of the season, preferred it that way.
And this is where we depart from football jargon and my award-winning writing to talk quickly about ... physics.
Ajayi is so good at running outside zone plays because he’s listed at 223 pounds but on any given game day can be pushing 230. And when those 230 pounds take the ball and head outside, then Ajayi plants his foot and cuts inside, now his weight and shoulders are parallel with the end zone.
And the defenders -- all of whom are screaming “Whaaaaaa,” as they chase Ajayi outside-- are still all running with their bodies mostly perpendicular to the end zone.
So Ajayi’s full 230 pounds is headed toward the end zone while the defenders are still running toward the side line. And when the collision of those two happen, it’s Ajayi’s full weight going forward while defenders often times are offering a blow from the side instead of being able to meet Ajayi head on.
(The proof is in the picture above).
Do you now understand why Ajayi has such a tremendous advantage running outside zone plays when he makes that cut?
One more thing ...
Ajayi isn’t tippy-toeing. He’s running hard. With purpose.
“You don’t really how hard he going until you’re down there near it,” Gase said. “He ran by the sideline Sunday and it was violent.”
Great, so the Dolphins have it all figured out, right?
Because Ajayi has been successful and eager to take on a greater workload, and has conditioned himself for that duty, the Dolphins handed him the football 28 times against the Chargers. Ajayi played 94 percent of the offensive downs (64 of 68) against the Chargers.
“Yes, I mean I looked at the play count and everything. It was like ˜Wow, I was almost out there like all of the plays,’ and I felt good,” Ajayi said. “It felt good to be out there in all the plays and be dependable and be counted upon, and that’s just how the game plan went against the Chargers. We’ll see how it goes this week.”
Forget this week. Giving Ajayi 28 carries per game for the entire season is not going to work. It simply is not sustainable. No wonder he spent Wednesday and Thursday practice days trying to get his body to recover from last Sunday’s 28 collisions.
Gase knows Ajayi can’t stay on this schedule. The coach must find a way to use Kenyan Drake and Damien Williams every once in a while. But that is not without issues.
“You also don’t want to take (Ajayi) out of his rhythm,” Gase said. “We’ve just got to see how the game goes. I think we have a pretty good plan -- kind of a feel -- of how we want to do this, this week. We like having those other two guys on the field, too. It’s just it’s hard to take out the guy that’s really, really good.”
Call this a great problem to have. But it’s a problem that needs to be solved so that the “really, really good” running back is still really, really good in December. That’s the new issue in the ongoing growth of this relationship:
Figuring out how much is enough and how much is too much.
“I think anywhere from that 20 to 25 range is a good (number of) carries for a running back in a game,” Ajayi said. “However the game goes, game flow, all of that stuff, can affect how many carries you get. It’s all about just taking what you get with the opportunities that you get, and that’s always my mentality is how many times we run ball, how many times coach Gase calls my number, whether it’s running the ball or catching it. Just take advantage of every opportunity and with every touch, just make it count and try to put points on the board.”
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero