Although he may not play on Sunday, Jay Ajayi is the missing piece in Eagles backfield puzzle

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After the Eagles shook the foundations of the NFL by trading a fourth-round draft pick to the Dolphins in exchange for British running back Jay Ajayi, expectations for the backfield changed. The Birds’ are riding a seven-game streak where they have amassed 100+ rushing yards, an impressive feat for any team in the NFL. With Ajayi’s presence, what has become a balanced offense could now evolve into one of the most lethal rushing attacks in the league. That may not take place this Sunday, with Pederson being non-committal on whether or not his new running back will play, but Ajayi’s role is crucial.

“He’s a violent runner.” Doug Pederson told reporters when asked about the Brit. “He’s aggressive. When I say ‘violent’, he’s aggressive. He’s got a great one-cut move back to the inside. I think he’s got tremendous vision. He can hit the hole extremely fast. Even in the open field, he’s got the speed to run away from defenders.”

“I think you’ve seen LeGarrette [Blount] break away and stretch a defense a little bit. You’ve seen Wendell [Smallwood] do it. Obviously, Corey [Clement] did it last week. But this guy’s explosive and gives you a little burst through the hole. We’ll see how it goes today, if he’ll be available.”

Last year, the Eagles backfield lacked any kind of shape or consistency. Sure, injuries hampered the team down the stretch, but after a week three win over Pittsburgh where both Wendell Smallwood and Kenjon Barner scored their first rushing touchdowns, the backfield completely dissipated. Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles seemed to change roles on a weekly basis, with neither showing signs of being the bell-cow back that Pederson craved. One year later, that trend almost looked as if it was going to continue.

Carson Wentz was forced to throw the ball 46 times in a tightly contested loss to Kansas City, his third highest career total. To make things worse, Wentz led the team in rushing with 55 yards after being consistently flushed out of the pocket and forced to improvise. Darren Sproles rushed the ball ten times and Wendell Smallwood only three. LeGarrette Blount? Nowhere to be found.

But then came an injection of life. Out of nowhere, the Eagles began to find their rushing identity and began pounding away at defenses. The offensive line meshed together and the backs started to hit holes assertively. Game-changing runs from LeGarrette Blount, eye-popping bursts from Corey Clement, and a sense of sustainability as Pederson balanced the offense week-after-week lifted the clouds from Lincoln Financial Field.
The Eagles are heading into the second half of the season in good stead, but start off that campaign with a showdown against Denver this weekend, before a bye-week break will leave them preparing for a slew of divisional matchups and tough games. The weather will get colder, mistakes will be easier to come by, and while some teams are competing for playoff berths, others will be playing for pride.
Running the ball becomes harder when Winter arrives. Running it consistently is even tougher. The Eagles have been no exception to that rule. Here’s a look back at their last three years running the ball in December.
  • 2016     435 yards
  • 2015     363 yards
  • 2014     430 yards

It’s a trap that has followed Doug Pederson to Philadelphia, who only arrived in 2016. In the three year’s prior to that, he was learning under Andy Reid as Kansas City’s offensive coordinator. Under Big Red, running the ball was a little easier.

  • 2015    488 yards
  • 2014    369 yards
  • 2013    727 yards
The difference? Having a bruiser back certainly helps. For Kansas City, that role was of course largely fulfilled by Jamaal Charles and a supporting cast of threatening one-cut backs. All of a sudden, the pattern is clear.  Last season in December, Ajayi amassed 366 yards by himself for the Dolphins, including a 206 yard effort against Buffalo and a touchdown.
Jay Ajayi brings the physicality and aggressive style of running showcased by LeGarrette Blount, but with a little more versatility and much more youth on his side. If Blount struggles to get going in the Winter, the Eagles now have a back just as powerful to plough through those winter months.

“Well, yeah, whether it’s a big back or just having a couple of backs available down the stretch.” Pederson said. “As you know, you’ve seen running backs throughout the season get nicked up late in the year. You got to have a couple I think on your roster. If you’re going to make a strong playoff run and be a contender each year, then I think you’ve got to have the ability to run the ball down the stretch.”

The Eagles are 7-1. A playoff berth seems nearly certain, but stranger things have happened. Doug Pederson has experienced the lows of starting red-hot and ending ice-cold during his time at Kansas City, and the inverse too. It’s all about consistency for the Eagles Head Coach, as it is for their backfield.

Sustaining an offenses production all starts with the run. If Carson Wentz was forced to throw 45+ times per game in those crucial final four games, it’s piling unnecessary pressure on the young signal-caller and marginalizing the offense. By adding a running back with three 200+ yard games to his name, the Birds have found a way to retain the backfield breakout that has been an integral part of the team’s insanely hot start.

Physicality is not a formation, nor is it a playbook. It’s a mindset. Instilled by Duce Staley during Training Camp, empowered by one of the best in the business and now catalyzed by one of the most dangerous young backs in the game, this is an Eagles team with all the right pieces in place to push through the months in football where attrition takes center stage.

 

 

Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

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