A dominant downhill back who can take some of the weight off LeGarette Blount’s shoulders. That was the consensus when Jay Ajayi was acquired by the Eagles in the heart of the 2017 season. However since that fateful day, Ajayi has taken over the Eagles backfield…in more ways than one. After a rollercoaster win over Oakland, it’s clear that the Eagles will need to lean on the former Phins back more than ever…in more ways than one.
One of the most underrated parts of Ajayi’s game in recent weeks has been his versatility. With at least ten carries in his last three games, Ajayi is finding increasing value as a receiving option out of the backfield on screen passes. Below is a graph that shows Ajayi’s carries in each game since his debut against Denver (Green line) and his receiving yards in each matchup (blue line).
While he led the Eagles in rushing with 53 yards on Monday night, it was his 17 yard touchdown reception that propelled the Eagles into some much needed momentum early on. Last night also marked the second year in a row that Ajayi has picked up at least 1,000 scrimmage yards in a season.
Ajayi’s game is changing. The Eagles seem to have found the perfect formula for their lead back, with nobody carrying the ball more than Blount’s season-high of 16 attempts against the Niners. But as a perfect compliment to that, Ajayi is being featured more and more on screen passes.
During the 2016 season, Ajayi amassed 151 receiving yards for Miami. He has 91 yards since joining the Eagles midway through a season in which he had to pick up the offense, learn the playbook and filter into what was already a very congested backfield. As 2017 draws to a close and the weather continues to get colder and wetter, the Eagles will have to rely on their running backs.
Ball security was a major problem for the Eagles against the Raiders and while Ajayi wasn’t exempt from that, three team fumbles and some close shaves put the Eagles in some tricky situations. Those problems were only made more damaging because Nick Foles struggled to direct traffic outside. Alshon Jeffery went the entire night without a catch and Torrey Smith has one catch for 5 yards. Nelson Agholor lined up on a few 2-WR looks, but all air-traffic went through Zach Ertz and Nelson Agholor for the most part. That’s exactly where the Eagles struggled last year and if the run-game is unable to take the pressure off of Foles, then the team will struggle in the postseason.
T”here were times when they were trying to double him and rolling the coverage.” Foles said about the lack of attention received by Alshon Jeffery. “The rest of them I have to look at, too, with different ways to get him the ball because he can make so many plays.
If the Eagles can focus on harnessing Ajayi’s angry-running and sense of urgency out of the backfield however, then the offense will continue to spread out and options will open up. Oakland began to cram the box in the second half, holding the Eagles to minimal yardage after the second quarter and the gameplan didn’t change as a consequence. If Pederson can add in a few more screens for a running back who has been increasingly impressive out of the backfield, but is not yet known as a prominent dual-threat, it could be the exact type of hidden weapon that the team need if other options begin to close off due to defenses attempting to marginalize the offense.
Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports