The Dolphins found a feature back in Jay Ajayi, who recently achieved back-to back-200+ yard rushing games, a feat that has only been accomplished by three other players: O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell, and former Dolphin Ricky Williams.
This has rightfully received a swarm of media attention, but it is also helping in aspects of Miami’s offense that have gone unnoticed. The passing game has finally become functional thanks to this new found running success. Below are a few examples that depict how.
Before Ajayi Was Featured
In the play above, only one player on the entire defense truly respected the run – the linebacker assigned to follow the running back. For one defender, #91, this lack of respect enabled him to change a potential touchdown into a disastrous sack. The right tackle who should be blocking #91 was either preparing to block for the run option, or he was expecting the running back to pick up the block as he takes on potential blitzers. Regardless, #91, completely ignored the running back as a potential ball carrier and shot straight for Ryan Tannehill.
The side angle of the same play shows the result: a full momentum, unblocked sack that prevented a potential big-play touchdown. The inside wide receiver set an excellent pick for the the outside wide receiver, leaving one tackler between the targeted receiver and the endzone. Since he was already looking to block downfield, the tight end could have easily cleaned up this tackler. Instead, Tannehill was never able to deliver the ball, as he got hit before planting his foot on the drop back. If #91 was even slightly more concerned about the run, perhaps would have slowed down enough for the Dolphins to successfully execute this play. That is the key difference between Miami’s losses to the Bengals and Titans versus their wins over the Steelers and Bills.
Utilizing Ajayi As Featured Back
The play below illustrates how a healthy dose of rushing changes everything. Following three straight runs that went for over six yards (in a game that already featured several successful runs) the Dolphins were setting up to throw off of play action. Prior to operating with a healthy starting line and emphasizing what has become a brutal run game with Jay Ajayi, this play would fool almost nobody. The linebackers would launch into their gaps without worry, and the linemen would not have to prepare to set the edge, leaving them free to come after Tannehill with a vengeance.
In contrast, this play thoroughly paralyzed the defense after Miami emphasized the run and executed it well. All three linebackers were “frozen” in their lanes, so they did not fire the gaps to add heat to the pass rush. Additionally, they did not stay back to cover pass catchers coming across the middle.
Meanwhile, the safety to the right of the defensive formation stopped in case a run cut back across the offensive formation. In essence, he blocked the only path the linemen on his side of the formation were free to potentially rush the passer.
Now, four potential pass rushers (safety and linebackers) are eliminated from the play, and the defensive linemen are slowed. In addition, the end on the left side of the defense paused to set the edge. The remaining three linemen were left to provide pressure on their own, leaving a clean, comfortable, wide open pocket for Tannehill to step into to make multiple reads downfield.
Tannehill completed this particular pass for a 14-yard first down. On the flip side, if the defense does not respect the run, all the defenders identified above are free to come straight for him.