Miami Dolphins Jay Ajayi breaks a tackle attempted by Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Mitchell 23, in the second quarter at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, October 16, 2016. (CHARLES TRAINOR JRctrainor@miamiherald.com)
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Next time a player insists he doesn’t watch the scoreboard or check his stats during the game, remind him of Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi and Oct. 16, 2016.
Ajayi not only knew how many more yards he needed to crack 200 on Sunday, but his teammates challenged him to get the benchmark before Miami’s last drive.
“It was funny, the running backs were just pushing me, like, ‘Hey man, you're not done. Keep pushing, keep working,’” Ajayi said.
“My boy [Kenyan] Drake told me, ‘Go get 200 if you can. Go get it. You’re not done with it.’”
Drake, a Dolphins backup running back, was a prophet.
Ajayi needed 58 yards with a minute left in regulation. He got 62 — and a touchdown — on the 25th and final carry of his remarkable day.
Ajayi had the most prolific game by a Dolphins back in 14 years, and as a result, the Dolphins have their best win of the season.
The Dolphins punched the Steelers in the mouth, averaging 6.2 yards per carry and outgaining the AFC North leaders 474-297 in total yards in their 30-15 victory Sunday.
As a result, their season looks vastly different now than it did Sunday morning.
The Dolphins are still in a deep hole. At 2-4, they remain three games behind the division-leading Patriots. But outside of New England, the AFC is a jumbled mess of mediocrity. All but three teams are somewhere between 2-4 and 4-2.
And if they can consistently run the ball anywhere near as effectively as they did Sunday, the Dolphins will be a handful for whomever they play.
On the day Arian Foster returned from hamstring and groin injuries, Ajayi demonstrated that he’s not giving up his starting job again without a fight.
The media scrum around Ajayi’s locker perfectly captured the power shift in Miami’s running backs’ room.
Ajayi held court with reporters for a dozen minutes; Foster, one of the league’s most accomplished active backs, dressed quietly in the adjacent stall and slipped out without getting a single question from the press.
But that’s what happens when your locker-mate has a day for the record books.
Ajayi ran for 204 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries. It was the most prolific day by an NFL running back this season, and the fourth-most rushing yards in a game in franchise history.
Ajayi had never run for even 50 yards in a game as a pro before Sunday; he had two runs of at least 30 yards against the Steelers.
And nobody was happier than Ryan Tannehill, who was barely hit the whole day. Tannehill completed 24 of 32 passes for 252 yards and, most importantly, no interceptions in his cleanest game of the season.
“I knew we were going to come in and be aggressive rushing the football, but when you can rush for 200 yards — I don’t know how many total we had — but when you have a guy go over 200 yards and definitely the team over that, you’re going to be in a good position to win a lot of games,” Tannehill said.
It also allows Adam Gase to use his entire playbook.
Gase had hoped the Dolphins would get this production out of Ajayi last week. Ahead of the Titans game, he told Ajayi that he would get the ball more than he had in the season’s first four weeks. But the Dolphins offense couldn’t generate enough plays to give him those opportunities.
Not a problem on Sunday. The Dolphins had 68 plays from scrimmage and controlled the ball for 361/2 minutes.
And they did so because Gase didn’t give up on Ajayi after an ugly start to the season. Ajayi went into a funk after losing the starting job to Foster, so Gase left him at home for the Week 1 game in Seattle.
“He overcame so much being the starting running back and being benched and then coming out here and rushing for that many yards today,” said center Mike Pouncey. “It shows what kind of guy he is. He doesn’t give up.”
Added Ajayi: “I just use everything that’s gone on, just from the talk of us not being a group that can help this team win, talk of there might not be qualified backs in our room, just that Week 1 issue, just everything has all been motivation not just for myself, but our whole room.”