Faster than you can say Jay Ajayi — or maybe it’s “Jay Ajayi?!” — the Miami Dolphins have turned their season around. Thanks to their running back, they’re back in the running for a playoff berth.
Two weeks ago, the Dolphins were a field goal away from being the NFL’s only winless team. But they begin their bye week at 3-4 following back-to-back wins and consecutive 200-yard rushing performances by Ajayi, who doubled his career rushing total and matched an NFL record shared by two Hall of Famers.
The Dolphins remain long shots to halt the reign of New England (6-1) in the AFC East. But they’re in the mix for a wild-card berth that would end an eight-year playoff drought.
“When you come into the locker room the last two weeks, it’s just a better feeling,” guard Jermon Bushrod said Monday. “I chase that feeling. I want to be in the locker room hugging and joking around with the guys after the game, instead of sitting there sulking.
“Nobody wants to be talked about in a bad manner. We’re tired of it.”
Ajayi changed the conversation by rushing for 204 yards against Pittsburgh and 214 on Sunday against Buffalo. His bruising, tackle-breaking style has transformed the Dolphins into a run-first, ball-control team that dominated the line of scrimmage the past two weeks on both offense and defense.
“It’s just being physical,” defensive end Mario Williams said. “We’re definitely trying to change the culture here, and it starts with that.”
It starts with Ajayi, and that’s a surprise. After being taken 149th in the 2015 draft, he had just 80 carries in his first 21 games on the Dolphins roster. In the past two weeks he has 54 carries while becoming only the fourth player to rush for 200 yards in consecutive games, joining O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams. He leads the league with 6.3 yards per carry.
“I didn’t know he had it in him,” tackle Branden Albert said. “I knew he ran hard, but I didn’t know he ran this hard.”
Ajayi has benefited from the blocking of an offensive line that was in flux because of injuries and illness until Week 6. Now Ajayi is consistently passing the line of scrimmage before he encounters contact.
The successful ground game has reduced pressure on Ryan Tannehill, who has been sacked only once in the past two games while posting his highest passer ratings of the year.
“We’re not trying to toot our horns, and I know things were looking ugly for us in certain games,” Albert said. “But we didn’t have all our guns. Now we’ve got everybody healthy.”
Playing to his team’s strength, first-year coach Adam Gase has been willing to keep the ball on the ground, even though he was hired because of his success with the pass.
“Adam gets a rash from calling too many run plays,” offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said with a smile.
Gase said calling for handoffs is a no-brainer because Ajayi keeps getting first downs even when the opposition knows what’s coming. But recent success won’t help in games to come, beginning Nov. 6 against the New York Jets.
“When we get to the Jets, we’re going to have to prove it all over again, because they’re not going to care what we did last week,” Gase said. “They’re going to say, ‘Run it, because we’re going to stop you.’ We have to establish everything all over again.”
The schedule improves the chances the Dolphins can sustain their momentum. Ajayi said he felt fine Monday, but after two bruising wins, Gase said this week’s bye comes at a good time for the young running back and the rest of the team.
The Dolphins conclude an NFL record 44-day homestand when they host the Jets (2-5). The next game against a team with a winning record isn’t until Christmas Eve, with the next eight opponents a combined 15-26-1.
“We just want to keep this rolling,” Ajayi said. “It feels really good to win. You see how it is when you get those losses pile up. Now we’re starting to catch a rhythm, and we want to keep it going.”
How did NFL players from Idaho schools fare during Week 7?
- Chicago LT Charles Leno Jr. (No. 72, Boise State) started at Green Bay.
- Miami RB Jay Ajayi (No. 23, Boise State) had 28 carries for a career-high 214 yards and a touchdown in a start against Buffalo. He also made one reception for 2 yards.
- Baltimore LB Kamalei Correa (No. 51, Boise State) started and made two tackles at the New York Jets.
- New Orleans TE Josh Hill (No. 89, Blackfoot High/Idaho State) started and had one reception for 6 yards at Kansas City.
- Cincinnati FS George Iloka (No. 43, Boise State) started and made 10 tackles (eight solo) against Cleveland. Browns CB Jamar Taylor (No. 21, Boise State) had five stops.
- Offensive line starters: New York Jets LT Ryan Clady (No. 78, Boise State), Arizona LG Mike Iupati (No. 76, Idaho).
- Also participated: New England LB Shea McClellin (No. 58, Marsing High/Boise State), Tampa Bay OL Evan Smith (No. 62, Idaho State).
- Inactive: Tampa Bay RB Doug Martin (No. 22, Boise State), Seattle G Rees Odhiambo (No. 70, Boise State), New York Giants FS Darian Thompson (No. 27, Boise State).