In this Oct. 16, 2016, file photo, Miami Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi (23) avoids a tackle by Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ross Cockrell (31), during the second half of an NFL football game, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)
PITTSBURGH — Jay Ajayi‘s resume wasn’t much to look at in early October. Thirteen career games. A grand total of 304 yards rushing and three touchdowns for a Miami Dolphins team that may have cornered the market on “meh.” The only truly conspicuous thing about Ajayi in mid-October may have been the dreadlocks that crashed against the top of his No. 23 jersey like the surf on nearby South Beach.
Three hours against the Pittsburgh Steelers changed everything. Over the course of four quarters Ajayi angrily churned through Pittsburgh’s defense relentlessly, shaking off some tacklers, running over others on sprinting by the rest on his way to 204 yards and two scores in a 30-15 whipping that doubled as a coming out party.
No big deal. Only the most rushing yards given up by the Steelers in 16 years. Pittsburgh walked into Hard Rock Stadium 4-1 and rolling. The Steelers trudged out wondering what — or who, to be more exact — hit them.
“It was a humbling experience for us,” nose tackle Javon Hargrave said. “We went out there and got our butts whipped.”
The AFC North champions have no interest in repeating the experience Sunday when Ajayi and the Dolphins (10-6) visit the Steelers (11-5) in the wild-card round. Ajayi has proven his breakout was no “lighting strike,” as Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin put it. Ajayi struck again and again over the final 11 weeks on his way to 1,265 yards that helped propel Miami back to the postseason for the first time in eight years.
“I was confident I would have a good day,” Ajayi said about the first meeting. “The confidence level hasn’t changed. It’s exciting. Playoff game, winner go home. Stakes are higher. Chance to show your abilities on a big stage.”
And an opportunity for Pittsburgh’s defense to show just how much it’s matured. Looking back, the vibe that muggy afternoon was just “weird.” Defensive end Cam Heyward missed the first game of his career with a hamstring injury. Linebacker Ryan Shazier stood on the sideline in a T-shirt resting an achy right knee watching the 11 guys on the field getting manhandled.
“It definitely hurt to see us get beat up like that,” said Shazier, who will play this time around. “The things that went and how the game occurred. I think everybody understands how much it hurts. Everybody in this locker room been there that day, is ready to play these guys again and really show them that’s not going to happen again.”
For the most part, it hasn’t even with Heyward eventually being lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle in a Week 10 loss to Dallas . That game ended with Ezekiel Elliott darting to the end zone twice in the final two minutes through the kind of massive holes hard to open in practice, let alone when it counts. The Steelers walked off the field 4-5 and in serious trouble.
Then, quite quickly, the kids grew up even with their captain on injured reserve. Forced to get creative, defensive coordinator Keith Butler started moving Stephon Tuitt up and down the line and relying more heavily on Hargrave and well-traveled Ricardo Mathews. James Harrison and Bud Dupree ended the five-man rotation at outside linebacker because they provided the kind of physicality in the run game their brethren could not. Throw in an offense that started hogging the ball like a 3-year-old protecting his favorite toy and all of a sudden, the sledding against the Steelers became far tougher.
Pittsburgh allowed just 64.6 yards rushing a game during five straight wins that vaulted them back into first in the AFC North. Though they wobbled a bit over the final two weeks, the difference between the defense Ajayi saw in October and the one he’ll see on the second Sunday in January is considerable. Something not lost on Ajayi.
“They’re confident they’re doing things right so it’s exciting,” Ajayi said. “All that stuff that happened in the regular season is out the window.”
Particularly with quarterback Ryan Tannehill out . Ajayi is no longer a secret and opponents have adjusted. He’s gone over 80 yards just once over the final eight weeks, a 206-yard explosion in a Week 15 win over Buffalo that sealed a playoff berth. Ajayi expects Pittsburgh to crowd the line of scrimmage and try to get their hands on him before he gets loose in the secondary, where hitting the 6-foot, 216-pounder is not for the squeamish.
“If you’re talking about corners as your first line of defense in terms of stopping the run, that’s a bad discussion,” Tomlin said. “There are some bigger people more suited for that action that play in front of them that better have a lot to say about it, as well.”
That’s fine by Ajayi.
“Whatever the defenses throw at us, if we execute – our o-line comes off the ball physical, downhill, I’m running hard and receivers are doing what they do on the perimeter — we’ll be fine,” he said.
AP Sports Writer Steven Wine in Miami contributed to this report.