The J-Train has been sidetracked of late.
From 214 yards to 45, Jay Ajayi’s rushing totals have steadily dropped in each of the past four games. Hasn’t stopped the red-hot Miami Dolphins from winning, of course, but some of the head-butting power has gone out of the offense, and at a particularly dangerous time.
The 7-4 Dolphins go next to Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium, where no visiting back has topped 58 rushing yards this season and where most have had trouble getting past 30.
Taking road games into account, too, Matt Forte of the New York Jets is the only guy to reach 100 yards against the Ravens. He hit that number right on the button at MetLife Stadium six weeks ago, but it took him 30 carries to do it.
That’s more times than Ajayi has ever been handed the ball in an NFL game, and probably more times than Dolphins coach Adam Gase will be able to make himself call Jay’s number. Against Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil, Timmy Jernigan and the rest of the Ravens’ surly strike force, you’ve got to consider your star back’s long-term health.
“Our guys have to do a great job of getting on their blocks, just staying on their blocks, finishing every play,” Gase said.
“It’s a tough thing to kind of keep your mind wrapped around as far as ‘Stay with the run, stay with the run.’ But having the running back that we have makes me feel good as far as consistently staying with Jay, knowing he’s a big man that plays for four quarters and does a great job as far as wearing a defense down and trying to consistently get positive yards … You do feel like your guys get better as the game goes on.”
San Francisco tried to crush that stubborn strategy by loading up on the run last week. Bunching eight and sometimes nine players near the line of scrimmage, 49ers coach Chip Kelly dared Ryan Tannehill to throw the ball. A 20-for-30 passing day resulted, with three touchdown passes for Tannehill and a 31-24 win for Miami, but even then, Gase got some late production from Ajayi.
More than half of Ajayi’s meager 45-yard total came in the fourth quarter, including an 18-yard gain to get the Dolphins’ final touchdown drive started.
“Personally, I think we’ve had the opportunity to go against a lot of great run defenses over the past couple of weeks,” said Ajayi, and personally is how he views the topic.
“We know this week is another good defense we’re going against, and we want to be up to the challenge, have our offensive line play well and be physical on Sunday.”
What else would you expect to hear from a 229-pound back who prides himself in dealing out punishment and requiring more than one tackler to bring him down? That’s 14 pounds heavier than Marshawn Lynch was during a string of four seasons when he averaged 1,339 yards for Seattle.
Ajayi has a shot at his own big number in the five-game remainder of this season. He’s seventh in the league with 847 yards and looking for a return to the momentum of his back-to-back breakout games in October. With 204 yards against Pittsburgh and 214 against Buffalo, he changed the entire personality of the Miami offense.
Muscling up like that again seems impossible against Baltimore, which is No. 2 in the NFL against the run, but the probable return of Laremy Tunsil and Branden Albert to the left side of the offensive line should open a few more cracks. Don’t look for Mike Pouncey at center, though, and don’t expect anything to be easy.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh certainly doesn’t in his matchup with Miami’s running attack.
“You better find a way to stop it,” Harbaugh said. “I know that. If you allow them to run the ball, they’ll run for as many as you let them. That’s obvious based on some of the huge games Jay has had. That’s going to be a priority for us, and then when you do that and commit to that, you have to deal with their other weapons.”
Altogether, it’s a chance for Ajayi to prove that he’s developing into a Pro Bowl back, that the train he represents can run uphill and over a pile of rocks if necessary.
There’s no use bringing any other mind-set into these rumbles with the Ravens. The last meeting between the teams was a 15-13 Miami victory last December, and that was with former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco out because of knee surgery. Tannehill completed just nine passes for 86 yards that day but Lamar Miller pounded out 113 yards on the ground.
As for the eventual winning margin, you’ll probably like this.
Ajayi, then a rookie, ran for a two-point conversion to give the Dolphins a 15-0 lead and Miami’s defense made it stick, just barely.