DAVIE, Fla. (AP) — Jay Ajayi carried a career-high 32 times in his most recent game for the Miami Dolphins, and it’s clear his attacking style is taking a toll.
On other teams, that is.
Ajayi has pushed the pile, bounced off tacklers and bruised the ego of many a defense. The last coach to face him, Rex Ryan, got fired after Ajayi ran for 206 yards to help the Dolphins beat the Buffalo Bills in overtime.
The season has been punishing for Ajayi, too. He sprained his shoulder at Buffalo and was limited in practice Wednesday, but he’s expected to play in Sunday’s regular-season finale against the New England Patriots .
“I take pride in being able to withstand a lot of hits,” he said.
“He describes his style as angry,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “I wouldn’t disagree with that.”
Anger, toughness and durability are all part of the package with Ajayi, a second-year pro who has emerged as the kind of running back who can carry a team to the playoffs. That’s where the Dolphins (10-5) are headed for the first time since 2008, and Ajayi is the AFC offensive player of the week for the third time this year.
“You don’t get these awards unless we win,” he said. “That’s the most important thing — we’re winning.”
That’s something Ajayi helped change. He also transformed pass-happy first-year coach Adam Gase into a run-first play caller.
Gase and his staff have discovered that Ajayi, like many top running backs, does better when he does more. He’s seventh in the NFL with an average of 5.0 yards per carry, and after the third quarter that average is 7.1.
Ajayi trains with the goal of staying fresh for four quarters — or more if needed. He broke free for 57 yards in overtime to help beat the weary Bills.
Success on the ground late in close games has been a recurring pattern for Miami.
“My mentality is to run hard throughout the game and eventually wear down the defense,” Ajayi said. “You understand a lot of teams can’t really stick with us all four quarters. We just have to stay diligent with it.”
Ajayi had 397 rushes and receptions in his final season at Boise State, so his 269 this year might not seem like much. But he has averaged more than 21 carries over the past 10 games, yet shows no sign of flagging.
Last week, Ajayi became the fourth NFL player to have three 200-yard rushing games in a season, joining O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and Tiki Barber. He ranks sixth in the league with 1,213 yards, despite totaling only 117 through Week 5 before Gase dispensed with a running-back-by-committee approach.
Defenses now gear to stop Ajayi, especially with quarterback Ryan Tannehill sidelined by a knee injury, which makes holes harder to find. But Ajayi doesn’t always need a hole.
“He has strength and toughness, and he’s just getting better,” said Matt Moore, Tannehill’s replacement. “Teams are loading the box, and he knows he needs to make somebody miss, and he’s doing that consistently.”
Ajayi has had four gains of at least 40 yards this year. But some of his most impressive runs barely cross the line of scrimmage, offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said.
“A lot of times he’s doing things better than even in the 200-yard games,” Christensen said. “The hard ones are when there’s not much there. Those 2-yard runs could be minus-2-yard runs.”
Given his breakout season, Ajayi was disappointed to be chosen a first alternate for the Pro Bowl.
“It’s just a little motivation to keep working and keep striving to be the best,” he said. “I consider myself one of the best.”
He’ll carry his annoyance in the playoffs, which could be good for the Dolphins.
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