In the modern era of pro football, fans and coaches alike are often guilty of overthinking a problem. A perfect example of this occurred just a few years ago when the Seattle Seahawks stood on the brink of defeating the New England Patriots to capture their second consecutive Super Bowl. With 1:06 remaining in the game, the Seahawks handed the ball to their powerhouse runner, Marshawn Lynch, who smashed his way down from the 5-yard line to within inches of the goal line.
Then, with 0:25 on the clock, rather than feed the ball to “Beast Mode” yet again, Seattle coach Pete Carroll called for a quick slant from Russell Wilson that ended in a game-clinching Malcolm Butler interception.
The irony of that moment is unmistakable. Lynch, a running back whose legendary reputation had been forged by grinding down opponents, especially late in games, had already pounded the Patriots for 102 yards on 24 carries, including a 3-yard touchdown run. Yet, just like the Atlanta Falcons did in this year’s Super Bowl, when a couple of running plays would have ensured an easy game-winning field goal, Seattle abandoned their successful ground assault and gave up a devastating sack the put them out of field goal range.
Why Seattle and Atlanta opted to forgo the run at crucial moments of their respective losses is bewildering considering that both had been doing a masterful job of gashing the Patriots’ defense. In fact, the two NFC champions combined for 266 yards and 2 TDs on 47 carries against New England for an impressive 5.7 yards per carry average.
So, what does all this tell us? That New England is, and has always been, a finesse team under Bill Belichick. As a result, they can be, and often are, outmuscled in the trenches.
That, of course, begs a second question. If the Patriots can be manhandled in this way, why don’t teams do so more often? Again, the answer is plain as day. Unlike what occurred in Super Bowl LI, Tom Brady usually gets the Patriots off to a fast start, which forces other teams to focus on the passing game in the hope of keeping up. Yet, when teams don’t fall behind early and give up on the run, the story takes a drastically different turn.
New England lost twice in 2016. In those two games, the Buffalo Bills and the Seahawks combined for a whopping 58 carries and 230 yards. A similar pattern occurred in the 4 Patriots’ regular season losses in 2015. In those games, Buffalo, the Philadelphia Eagles, the New York Jets and Miami combined for 116 carries and 546 yards.
In those 6 losses, the Patriots’ opponents averaged 29 carries for 129 yards and a 4.5 yards per carry average. In other words, when push comes to shove, literally, Bill Belichick’s defenses can’t stop the run. Thus, the secret to ending the New England Patriots’ reign atop the AFC East has nothing to do with outsmarting Belichick. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The Miami Dolphins simply need to keep it close early, bully the world champions at the line of scrimmage, and run the ball straight down their throats.
Too Good To Be True?
Ridiculously simple, you say. Not really. Back in the 1960s, everyone in the stadium knew the Green Bay Packers were going to run the power sweep. Yet, no one could stop it. In the 70s, the same was true of the Dolphins, and later, the Steelers.
Naturally, many are rolling their eyes right about now, convinced that such a basic strategy could only work in a bygone era, when the NFL was primarily a running league. Surely, it could not succeed in the pass happy game we know today. Yet, oddly enough, that last point is precisely why it would work in the modern era.
First, consider that the vast majority of today’s NFL defenses are primarily built to stop the pass. Then, add to that the fact that tackling in the NFL is not what it used to be. This noticeable decline in the quality of tackling is due, of course, to the current collective bargaining agreement, which limits teams to just 11 full contact practices in the first 11 weeks of the season, and another 3 over the final six weeks. Fortunately for the Dolphins, even an organization like New England, which has built quite a reputation for ignoring the rules, has no way around this carefully monitored decree.
Of course, none of this will matter if Miami doesn’t significantly upgrade their offensive line. Nevertheless, if they do, and there is every reason to believe they will, the Dolphins will be uniquely positioned to, not only dominate the Patriots at the line of scrimmage, but pound them into submission with what could quickly evolve into the NFL’s most dangerous running game.
What A Bargain
If the idea of Miami’s running game blossoming into an unstoppable juggernaut seems like wishful thinking, consider the following. According to Pro Football Focus, the 2016 Dolphins not only had a tremendous lead back in Jay Ajayi, but surprisingly good depth as well.
|Running Back||Snaps||Run||Receiving||Pass Block||Overall Grade||Position Rank|
Still, before we consider the on field virtues of the Dolphins’ backfield, it is worth noting that it ranked among the cheapest in the NFL at just $2.6 million. That was just 13% of what the Minnesota Vikings paid for their backfield, the most expensive in the league. If that sounds like a terrific bargain, it is even better than you think.
The 2016 Vikings managed just 1205 yards, the fewest of any team, on a paltry 3.2 yards per carry average. The Dolphins, in turn, were 9th in rushing yards with 1824 and an impressive 4.5 average. (Keep in mind, that is the same yards per carry average New England gave up in their 6 regular season losses over the past two years) To put that into perspective, Minnesota paid $16,597.51 for every yard gained on the ground, while Miami paid a mere $1,425.44. That is a staggering 92% savings.
|Other Bonuses||Cap Number||Dead Money||Cap Savings|
Now, with Damien Williams about to enter free agency, the current price tag of the Dolphins backfield of Ajayi and Drake is set at just under $1.5 million. Of course, that number will go up when a third back is added to the 53 man roster, but don’t expect it to skyrocket. As we shall see later in this article, Miami will almost surely resign Williams rather than seeking a replacement in either free agency or the draft.
In Pursuit Of Perfection
In truth, so long as William’s asking price does not exceed logic, there is no reason for Miami to consider replacing him. After all, the last time the Dolphins had a backfield with the individual characteristics of Ajayi, Kenyan Drake and Williams, they took home two Lombardi trophies.
Ajayi is a powerhouse, simple as that. Like Larry Csonka before him, when the offense line allows him to build up a head of steam, he runs people over like no other back in the NFL.
Drake is another breakaway threat, but like Mercury Morris, he relies on speed rather than power.
Williams is a prototype dual threat in the mold of Jim Kiick. A dangerous receiver capable of pulling off power runs right into the guts of a defense.
Of course, this is not the 1970s. So, while all three are effective weapons, make no mistake. Ajayi is the star, and a rising one at that.
Sometimes Less Is Not More
The stunning rise of Ajayi was a surprise to most considering he had a less than stellar rookie season as Lamar Miller’s backup. Even so, the Dolphins are now convinced that the best is yet to come, especially in the wake of the offensive line restructuring.
“I think he has just scratched the surface of what he can be,” explained general manager Chris Grier to the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson last season. “I think he’ll become more patient at times and stuff. I think part of it too is the offensive line. Guys have to stay healthy. He’s adjusting to different guys in (the game) each week, a couple weeks here and stuff. With Jay, the one thing is he wants to be good; he wants to be great.
There were times when Ajayi was, indeed, great. He had three 200+ yard games and one 100+ yard game. In those 4 games, he carried the ball 109 carries for 735 yards, 5 TDs and a 6.7 yard average. While at other times, statistics would seem to suggest that the 2nd year back was mediocre at best. In fact, in Ajayi’s other 11 games, he carried the ball just 151 times for 537 yards, 3 TDs and a pedestrian 3.5 yard average.
At first glance, those statistics might give the impression that Ajayi is a terribly inconsistent back, but as any seasoned football analyst will explain, no one set of numbers can adequately summarize a given situation. So, with that in mind, let us delve deeper into the numbers, and as we shall see, they reveal on of the most extraordinary surprises in NFL history, and more importantly, the key to defeating the Patriots.
|Jay Ajayi 2016||Attempts||Yards||Average||Longest|
The startling number in the chart above is, of course, Ajayi’s amazing 10.9 yard average after crossing the 20 carry threshold. That number is stunning on its own. Nevertheless, it becomes all the more remarkable when measured against the aforementioned Marshawn Lynch, with whom Ajayi has been compared since his days at Boise State given the similarities in their running style and explosiveness.
Lynch’s entire mystique swirled around him being a battering ram who got stronger as the game wore on. Yet, as the following review of “Beast Mode’s” career clearly shows, even at his best, the former Seattle Seahawks star never approached what Ajayi did in 2016. In fact, his yards per carry average never made it to the half way mark of what Ajayi achieved after crossing the 20 carry threshold.
|Marshawn Lynch||21+ Attempts||Yards||Average||Longest|
The best Lynch ever managed was a 5.2 yards per carry average beyond the 20 carry threshold. That certainly isn’t bad. Nevertheless, it comes up a remarkable 5.7 yards shy of Ajayi’s mark last season.
While the comparison to Lynch is impressive, it only begins to scratch the surface of what Ajayi accomplished. Thus, in order to fully grasp the 2nd year back’s phenomenal feat, we must measure his stats against those of the other top ten rushers of 2016.
Like Lynch, none of these current-day stars managed even half of Ajayi’s average. As a matter of fact, the Dolphins star averaged a nearly unbelievable 6.3 yards more per carry than Ezekiel Elliott, his closest rival. Ajayi’s numbers are no less impressive when we isolate the individual games in which he carried the ball more than 20 times.
|New York Jets||24||111||4.6||20||1|
So, what do these astonishing results tell us? Simply put, Ajayi is a human wrecking ball that pulverizes defenses like no other back since the heyday of Earl Campbell. Of course, that should come as no surprise. After all, according to Pro Football Focus, the Pro Bowler led the NFL with an average of 3.5 yards after contact and 58 broken tackles.
As impressive as those numbers are, they still don’t tell the full story, far from it. Ajayi wasn’t just a great runner late in games. He was tremendous in crunch time, be it at the end of games or the end of the first half.
|Last 2 Min of Half||15||163||10.9||62|
If all the facts and figures we have reviewed thus far aren’t proof enough of Ajayi’s unmatched ability to raise his game when it counts most, consider that Ajayi is more than twice as good in overtime as he is in regulation play. Here again, his numbers in the 4th quarter and overtime humble the other top 10 backs in the league. So much so, that Ajayi’s average in overtime is a breathtaking 7.4 yards more per carry than his nearest counterpart, former Dolphin Lamar Miller.
|1st Qtr||2nd Qtr||3rd Qtr||4th Qtr||OT|
The best example of Ajayi’s prowess in overtime was his 57 yard run against the Bills to set up the winning score.
While the extraordinary statistics presented thus far should leave no doubt of Ajayi’s unrivaled ability to wear down a defense, the testimony of his opponents is nearly as compelling.
“Out of all the running backs we faced he’s definitely like the hardest guy to tackle or at least the top two,” explained the Baltimore Ravens’ Pro Bowl safety, Eric Weddle, according to Joe Schad of the Palm Beach Post. “This dude can run. He was just running through our guys. He was motivated because we had the number one rush defense coming into the game. And he is hard to hit. He’s strong, big. He just runs, like, fierce. Some guys are more elusive and when they make contact they’re easy to bring down, where he was tough to bring down. He’s got a bright, bright future.”
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Shazier expressed similar sentiments when he spoke to Schad as well.
“He is a great runner,” Shazier insisted. “He does a good job of running through contact. A lot of runners when they get hit they’ll stop their feet. But he does a great job of continuing to run his feet. And he continues to play at a high level. That’s an attribute that a lot of running backs don’t have.”
Winners And Losers
So, if Ajayi is as unstoppable as his fellow Pro Bowlers seem to believe, why did the first set of statistics we looked at paint such an inconsistent picture. Well, if we look at those same rushing statistics from the perspective of wins and losses, we will find a far more telling truth.
In the Dolphins 10 wins, Ajayi carried the ball 208 times for 1063 yards, 7 TDS and a 5.1 yards per carry average. In those same games, he racked up 10 rushes of 20+ yards, including runs of 62, 53. 40, 36 and 57 yards. In other words, a typical Dolphins win averaged out to 21 carries per game and 106 yards for Ajayi.
In Miami’s 6 losses, Ajayi racked up just 52 carries for 209 yards, 1 TD and 4.0 yards per carry. In those games, his longest run was for just 19 yards. That comes out to an average of just 9 carries and 35 yards per game. In fact, the most carries Ajayi had in a regular season loss was 13, and he topped out at a mere 61 rushing yards.
There are, of course, numerous reasons why Miami did not rely heavily on Ajayi in those losses. Chief among them, four of the defeats came early in the season, when the offense had not yet gelled and the starting RB role was being traded about between Ajayi, Kenyan Drake, and the soon to be retired, Arian Foster. Those games included the first loss to Seattle, in which Ajayi did not even play. The other two defeats, to the Ravens and the Patriots, were contests in which the Dolphins, you guessed it, fell behind early and needed to rely heavily on the passing game. Furthermore, in several of those losses, injuries to the Dolphins’ offensive line greatly reduced the effectiveness of the ground attack.
Ground and Pound
As we saw in Step 2 of this series, the Dolphins consider the health of their offensive line as crucial to their success. That is why the front office went to great lengths to add depth in 2016, and it is clear they intend to do more of the same, only better, this year with the goal of consistency in mind. To that end, as we have seen, they have the perfect running back in Ajayi, who excelled regardless of whom he ran behind.
|Right Outside Tackle||45||219||4.9||62|
|Right Inside Tackle||62||310||5.0||53|
|Left Inside Tackle||77||354||4.6||57|
|Left Outside Tackle||26||223||8.6||40|
If Grier is right about Ajayi only scratching the surface of his potential, the prospect of Tunsil moving out to his natural position at left tackle, as well as the addition of legitimate guards should have the Dolphins coaching staff salivating at the mouth. After all, if Miami finished 9th in the league in rushing behind a rag tag line, what might they achieve with a younger, healthier front five?
As exciting as that scenario seems, there is more to being a running back in Adam Gase’s offense than simply running the ball, particularly when it comes to beating the Patriots.
Adam Gase expects his RBs to be three-down backs. That means they need to be capable pass blockers and receivers as well. On that last count, Damien Williams was clearly the most effective of the trio.
Williams’ ability as an all-around back isn’t the only thing that bodes well for his return. He is a personal favorite of Ryan Tannehill. So much so, that they young QB personally recommended him to Gase upon his arrival in Miami.
“One of the first things Ryan said to me was “This guy can do a lot of things,” recounted Gase, to Jason Lieser of the Palm Beach Post, before confirming Tannehill was right. “The more we’ve expanded our offense, he’s been able to really show me that he can do everything.”
Williams’ numbers can’t rival Ajayi’s, but they are impressive nonetheless. While he only got a total of 58 combined runs and catches, he totaled 364 yards, averaged 6.2 yards per touch, and scored 6 touchdowns. Beyond that, he showed a unique ability to come through when it counted most.
“It’s one of those things that’s hard to explain, but when you talk about the ‘it’ factor, he has an ‘it’ factor to him,” Gase further explained to Lieser. “The ball finds him in the most crucial parts of the game.”
While Williams helped his cause by coming through with big plays when it counted most, he wasn’t the only one.
Hitting It Big
A big play in the NFL is considered a pass of 25 yards or more, or a run of 10 plus yards. As it happens, the Dolphins were a big play team in 2016, ranking 2nd in that category behind just the Buffalo Bills.
|Big Plays||Pass 25 Yds +||Run 10 Yds +|
As is evident from the chart above, it is the running game that has made a stark improvement over the last two seasons. As such, it should come as no surprise that it was Ajayi who led the way. The 2nd year standout was only one of four backs in the league with10 runs or more of 20+ yards.
It is here where Ajayi’s ability to break tackles really made a difference over Lamar Miller. It is also why, when his rookie contract is up, so long as he remains healthy, the Dolphins will give Ajayi the kind of big money they weren’t willing to give Miller. Yet, for all of his big play ability, even Ajayi can’t single handedly overcome a problem first raised in Step 2 of this series.
While the Dolphins running game improved in almost every way in 2016, they suffered more runs for losses than the previous year, and Ajayi was personally stuffed on 37 of his 260 rushing attempts, or 14.2% percent of the time.
To put that into perspective, consider that Ajayi managed 39 runs of 10 yards or more, which is equal to exactly 15% of his carries. In other words, thanks to mistakes by the offensive line, Ajayi had nearly as many runs for losses as big plays. That, again, is precisely why Miami must resolve their offensive line issues in order to get the most value out of their star runner and use him as the spearhead that will fell New England.
Money For Nothing
If the Dolphins are serious about getting value out of their running backs, they would be wise to stay away from the top backs in free agency, with the possible exception of Latavius Murray.
While DeAngelo Williams has proven extremely effective as a backup to Le’Veon Bell, he is far too old for a team looking to build for the long term. He has also missed 17 games over the last 3 years. That alone should conjure memories of Arian Foster, and we all know how that turned out.
LaGarrett Blount is a power runner who brings very little to the equation. He is extremely limited as a receiver, and Miami already has a better bruiser in Ajayi. Beyond that, he has issues with Ndamukong Suh after accusing the Dolphins’ tackle of being a dirty player. So, Miami isn’t about to pay more than they need to just to have Blount laid out in practice.
Like DeAngelo Williams, Jacquizz Rodgers has played in just 31 of the last 48 games. Beyond that, he lacks big play ability and has been highly inconsistent throughout his career. 2016 was his best season, but even that was mediocre at best.
Latavius Murray is a solid runner, and while some have criticized his skill as a pass catcher, his numbers indicate that he is an adequate receiver. He has also managed to stay relatively healthy during his 3 years in the NFL, playing in 45 of 48 games. Better still, he can also function as a kick returner, if need be. All the more reason the Oakland Raiders will likely fight to keep him.
There are a couple of other intriguing possibilities out there, namely Jamaal Charles and Danny Woodhead, both of whom could be brought in on 1-year “prove it” contracts. Charles, when healthy, is as dynamic as any back in the league, but at this stage of his career, the 30-year old appears to be another Arian Foster waiting to happen, having managed just 404 yards on 83 carries over 8 games since the start of the 2015 season. Woodhead is even more of a long shot as he tries to battle his way back from a torn ACL. Like Charles, he is effective when healthy, but the 32-year old diminutive back is a role player with no hope of carrying the weight if Ajayi goes down.
Thus, when it comes to signing a free agent, the Dolphins would be shrewd to stick with Damien Williams. As we have already seen, he is a decent runner, a solid receiver, has his QB’s support, and already knows the team’s playbook and system. Best of all, he doesn’t present much of a financial or injury risk, and he could shoulder a fair amount of the workload if Ajayi had to miss some time.
If the Dolphins can’t work out a contract with Williams and are forced to add another back, there are two very important reasons for them to seek out a bargain in free agency as opposed to plucking a youngster from the draft.
- Given the relative youth and inexperienced of the backs currently on the roster, the team would benefit from having a seasoned veteran in the running back room to serve as a guiding voice.
- The team has far too many gaping holes elsewhere to waist a pick on a backup RB, especially with so much talent already on the bench.
That talent is, of course, Kenyan Drake. Drake didn’t garner much attention while playing behind Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, and the same has been true while playing behind Ajayi his rookie season. Nevertheless, he is a formidable weapon in his own right.
While it is no guarantee of future success, it should be noted that, as a runner, he had a more impressive rookie season than Ajayi.
|Rookie Season||Att||Yds||Avg||TD||Long||1st Downs|
However, a similar comparison of their rookie receiving stats would suggest that Drake has yet to equal his college success as a pass catcher in the NFL.
|Rookie Season||Rec||Yds||Avg||TD||Long||1st Downs|
Given Gase’s desire to keep defenses guessing, it is a safe bet that Drake will get more opportunities to contribute in 2017. After all, Miami drafted him due to his big play ability and long term potential. Drake could prove to be a terrific change of pace back, literally. His 40-yard dash time coming out of college was an impressive 4.45, while Ajayi’s was 4.57.
That said, it is important to note that while Drake was the 3rd fastest running back at last year’s combine, he was by far the weakest, managing a mere 10 reps in the 225 lbs bench press, 4 fewer than his nearest rival. By comparison, Ajayi pulled off nearly twice as many reps at 19. Furthermore, Drake was perceived as brittle by many scouts prior to last year’s draft due to injuries he suffered at Alabama, which, among others, including a broken ankle, a cracked rib, a concussion, and a broken arm. The one positive – he was able to bounce back quickly from every one of them.
Naturally, Drake will need to continue working on a strengthening regiment in case he is ever called upon to replace Ajayi due to injury. Otherwise, in spite of his game-breaking talent, he could see his shot at a starting job going to Williams or someone else instead. Especially considering that the Dolphins are reallocating their money towards building an offense focused, first and foremost, on running between the tackles.
Get Your Tickets Now
The idea of hard nosed running, of course, leads us back to the premise stated at the beginning of this piece. The secret to beating the Patriots is not predicated on complex trickery, but rather, on doing the one simple thing they have proven incapable of stopping. As such, let us conclude by reviewing what we have learned thus far about Miami’s plan to topple the reigning Super Bowl champs.
- The Dolphins’ front office is methodically reworking the team’s finances in order to assemble a roster perfectly designed to defeat New England.
- Miami’s first order of business is to continue upgrading its offensive line to include genuine guards capable of bolstering the running game.
- This idea of a sustained ground and pound approach is due to the fact that the Patriots are vulnerable against the run, and will remain so until the day Belichick and company completely rethink their long held defensive scheme and replenish their roster with more physically imposing players.
- Speaking of physically imposing players, the Dolphins entire offensive assault will hinge on Ajayi, the league’s most unstoppable back, running behind his improved line to, not only hammer the Patriots into submission, but as we shall see in our next article, open passing lanes for Ryan Tannehill and his trio of talented receivers to finally drive home the death nail in New England’s coffin.
Thus, if all goes as planned, Dolphins fans will soon have a new war cry:
“All Aboard the J-Train. Next stop…..the Super Bowl!”
To catch up on the first two steps in this series, visit my column, The Deep Dive.