Greg Cote

Dolphins’ Jay Ajayi, 200-Yard Man, and team’s newfound physicality

Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (23) scores in the third quarter as the Miami Dolphins host the Buffalo Bills at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, October 23, 2016.
Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (23) scores in the third quarter as the Miami Dolphins host the Buffalo Bills at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, October 23, 2016. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Is there magic in that pickle juice?

It is a preposterous notion, of course. But is it any more preposterous than a running back who began the season punished and demoted emerging to become a record-setting star? Or more preposterous than a Miami Dolphins team given up for dead roaring to life with resounding consecutive victories?

Jay Ajayi loving the sour tartness of pickle juice and sometimes drinking it on a sideline during games — that’s strange. But life is strange. Football is strange. And so here we are, in the middle of a season turned upside down, but in a very good way, indeed.

“A lot of people wrote us off,” center Mike Pouncey said afterward Sunday, in a lockerroom filled with the sweet noise of triumph and joy. “But it feels different now. In past years in this situation, we wouldn’t have found a way to fight back.”

That situation was a 17-6 second-half deficit to the division-rival Buffalo Bills. But instead of a game frittering away into defeat, it ended as a 28-25 victory that, on top of last week’s excellent upset of Pittsburgh, sends Miami sailing into its bye week on a gust of tailwind and feel-good. The season record still is a modest 3-4, but two big wins in a row have emboldened a team and its fans to believe the Fins have become good, and that the playoffs are back in play.

Enter the Pickle Juice Man.

Ajayi, 23, the second-year back and fifth-round draft pick out of Boise State, began this season left behind on the season-opening trip to Seattle after he’d been demoted to back-up Arian Foster and pouted a bit -- assuming the starting job would be his after incumbent Lamar Miller departed in free agency.

Evidently, there should have been little doubt about that to begin with.

Ajayi rushed for 214 yards against the Bills here Sunday after barreling through Pittsburgh for 204 the week before. In the NFL’s near 100-year history he becomes only the fourth back to roll to consecutive 200s, following O.J. Simpson in 1973 and ’76, Earl Campbell in 1980, and Dolphin Ricky Williams in 2002.

“They told me the backs I’m in company with, and that’s huge. Those are Hall of Fame guys,” Ajayi said. “I think I remember seeing a special on Campbell on TV once. It is a crazy thing to do, me joining that group. It’s kind of surreal for me.”

Ajayi, born in London to Nigerian parents, came to the United States in fourth grade. You still hear little wisps of British accent when he speaks certain words. “I didn’t have a clue about the game,” he says of American football.

Now defenses don’t have a clue how to stop him, apparently. The 6-foot, 229-pound Ajayi can punish would-be tacklers or swivel to make them miss. Either way, he is always running hard.

The difference in the past two games is, he is not running alone. The Dolphins’ five-man starting offensive line is healthy for the first time all season and they’ve been road pavers the past two games, dominating with physicality. It has changed everything about this team — Ajayi’s output only the most obvious result.

The linemen are loving the change to a run-first philosophy. They hugely prefer the aggressive push of run-blocking to the more passive posture of pass-blocking. Or, as tackle Ja’Wuan James put it Sunday, “As many times as I can go forward instead backward, I’m cool with that.”

Ajayi had 49 yards by the end of a big first quarter and it was like a boulder rolling downhill. Hard to stop.

“Jay’s a rhythm-type guy and I kept reminding myself to stay with him,” first-year coach Adam Gase said. “That’s my biggest challenge is just staying with him. Sometimes it’s easy to just start throwing it around. My brain goes through, ‘OK, stick with what’s s successful.’ ”

Should he forget, friendly reminders might pop up.

“Keep running it!” the center Pouncey shouted toward Gase during the second half.

Trailing 17-6 after a Bills touchdown pass late in the third quarter, Gase still was sticking with the run, sticking with Ajayi and his linemen. Miami ran eight times in a 10-play series right after that Buffalo score.

You know who else loves that mind-set? Dolphins defenders. Running well means ball possession and rested defenders.

“We’re trying to change the culture around here,” said defensive end Mario Williams, formerly of the Bills. “That starts with being physical and being able to run the ball.”

Bodacious Bills coach Rex Ryan fancies his own team and style one of physicality, but Sunday he was humbled, a rarity.

“We got outplayed, we got out-coached, we got out-everythinged,” said Ryan, whose team had won four in a row. “They were a more physical team, there’s no doubt about that. They controlled the game.”

This was an especially sweet win for Miami because it came in a situation that has not brought out the best of the Dolphins since their last playoff appearance in 2008. In the years since they have ranked 25th of 32 NFL teams in division record, 26th in home record and 30th in record following a victory. So beating a division rival, at home, to build a small win streak, found Miami prevailing in all three key areas that have let them down.

As a small franchise bonus, Minnesota, the league’s last unbeaten team, lost Sunday, preserving once against the 1972 Dolphins’ distinction for the only Perfect Season in history. So the ’72 Perfectos were raising glasses as fans of the current team toasted an unlikely revival led by the kid who loves his pickle juice.

“From him being demoted and being a backup to being one of the stars of the team, I’m proud of him,” Pouncey said of Ajayi. “I’ve seen guys go in the other direction.”

Long after most of his teammates had dressed and left the locker room Sunday, Jay Ajayi was still in dirt- and grass-stained uniform pants and an aqua undershirt, the eye black still on his face. The shower could wait. He didn’t want to wash away this feeling.

Dolphins all-time rushing performances

In the past two weeks, Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi has two of top five single-game rushing performances in team history:

Player;Date;Opponent;Yards;TDs

Ricky Williams;12/1/02;at Buffalo;228;2

Ricky Williams;12/9/02;vs. Chicago;216;2

Jay Ajayi;10/23/16;vs. Buffalo;214;1

Lamar Smith;12/30/00*;vs. Indianapolis;209;2

Jay Ajayi;10/16/16;vs. Pittsburgh;204;2

Related stories from Miami Herald

  Comments