PITTSBURGH — The offensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins, an affable, gregarious, loquacious man named Clyde Christensen, was discussing the common denominators of 200-yard rushing performances this week.
“Freaky…Rare…Outliers,” Christensen said of topping the 200-yard mark.
Appropriate that Christensen used three words to describe something Jay Ajayi has done three times this season.
Ajayi, too, is a freaky…rare…outlier, it seems.
And the Dolphins will need their sudden-star tailback to replicate Sunday in some fashion — even if he comes up just a tad short of two football fields — the dominating performance he turned in against the Steelers in October.
“The stakes are higher,” Ajayi said of Sunday’s Wild Card Playoff game at the Pittsburgh Steelers (1 p.m., CBS). “It’s a great time to showcase your abilities on the big stage.”
The Dolphins have appeared in only two playoff games since 2000. Miami has won one playoff game in the last 16 years. And on that day, against the Indianapolis Colts, yet another freaky and rare outlier.
Lamar Smith led the Dolphins to victory. He ran for 209 yards.
In October, Ajayi, Miami’s most unlikely Most Valuable Player, revealed himself against the Steelers.
He ran for 204 yards.
That day, Ajayi turned Miami’s season, crystallizing a new identity — tough, physical, smash-mouth running.
“I just have one word: beast,” Dolphins guard Laremy Tunsil recalled this week. “I mean, he got his opportunity and he took every chance with that one. That was a happy film.”
In that game, Ajayi, out of nowhere, had consecutive carries eight times.
“He ran like a madman,” center Kraig Urbik recalled this week.
In that game, Ajayi’s legs kept churning and potential tacklers were shunned aside by a man who ran angry.
“He ran through contact,” guard Jermon Bushrod recalled this week. “He gave it his all on every play. I watched the game twice since Monday. It just showed the type of effort that he plays with. He plays relentless. That game, it was just really inspiring to see him, you know, come out like that. We were able to rattle off some runs in a row because first down we get four yards or five yards or seven yards and so coach felt confident and comfortable in calling it again and again.”
Again and again. It must be Ajayi again and again on Sunday for the Dolphins, 11-point underdogs, to have a chance.
Miami is playing without starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill (knee) and center Mike Pouncey (hip), who played in the first meeting, as well as with a completely decimated defense.
The Dolphins must find a way to control the ball. Miami must find a way to be as physical as they were in the first meeting, a 30-15 victory. It was no coincidence first-year coach Adam Gase had the Dolphins in pads and hitting this Wednesday, something entirely uncommon this season.
Oh, and there are 15-mile-an-hour winds projected at Heinz Field around 1 p.m. on Sunday. It will make the temperature feel about 1 degree — yes, 1 above zero — at kickoff.
That’s football weather. That’s handoff weather.
“You can control the game if you run it,” said Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore, a 10-year veteran making his first career playoff start on Sunday. “The o-line really takes that to heart. They understand that they can take over the game if we do it right.”
In the first meeting, the Dolphins, now 10-6, physically dominated the Steelers, now 11-5.
However, all involved acknowledge several key Pittsburgh defenders, none more important than dangerous linebacker Ryan Shazier, will play in this meeting after missing the last.
When someone asked Ajayi about controlling his emotions on Sunday, he dismissed it.
“I’m an emotional player,” he said. “I’m going to play passionate.”
Near the end of a conversation with Miami reporters this week, Ajayi actually became worked up. As is the case with many Dolphins, before many games this season, he seems motivated by perceived disrespect toward the team.
“We hear a lot of talk about the other team and who they have and the players that they have, and it’s starting to get to me where you have to understand that we’ve got players too,” Ajayi said. “We’ve had guys that are playing at a high level and are showcasing their abilities and I think it’s time that people need to respect the fact that we have players on our offense too.”
It’s starting to get to me, Ajayi said.
That was the vibe in Miami’s locker room.
Miami expects Pittsburgh to place as many as eight men near the line of scrimmage in an effort to force Miami to pass. But the Dolphins note many of Ajayi’s longest runs have come against such formations.
The Dolphins also believe Pittsburgh’s defense was worn down in the first meeting. And that they can do it again.
“We need to play fast and challenge these guys,” offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James said. “When the d-line runs all day, by the time the fourth quarter comes, they can be worn down. If we can keep our stamina going and keep our speed going, it’s going to be a good day.”
Miami began this unexpected playoff run with a 1-4 start and no identity.
It is clear now that Ajayi is the full embodiment of the Dolphins 2016 season. They will likely advance or go home, based moslty on his performance.
Entering last months’ rematch with the Buffalo Bills, many observers predicted it would be impossible for Ajayi and Miami to replicate a 200-yard rushing performance against a determined, Rex Ryan-coached defense.
But Ajayi did.
“You should say that again,” James quipped this week.
Former Oilers great Earl Campbell is the only man to rush for 200 yards four times in a season. Two years ago, as a running back at Boise State, Ajayi was a finalist for the Earl Campbell Award.
This year, Ajayi became one of only four men to ever rush for 200 yards three times in a season.
This week, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Ajayi’s October performance was “no lightning strike.”
For Miami to pull a dramatic upset, on the road, in below-freezing conditions, with a depleted roster, Ajayi and the Dolphins may need one more strike.
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