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Dolphins' zone chips away, hits home run with Ajayi

Jay Ajayi stunned the NFL by becoming the first 200-yard rusher of the 2016 season in Week 6 against the Steelers. A week later, he did it again against Buffalo.

Ajayi went from rushing for 117 combined total yards in Weeks 2-5 to 418 in his last two. Ryan Tannehill remains a question mark, but one thing is for certain: Ajayi is the bell cow in Miami.

The biggest surprise of it all is the simplicity with which Miami is helping Ajayi gain all of those yards.

Miami's running game is heavily rooted in zone blocking, and in Ajayi's last two games, it has largely come out of the singleback formation. The I-formations listed below were created when the H-back motioned from the wing to an offset fullback position before the snap. Miami's running game is, at least in terms of formations, simple.

The zone scheme has many moving parts and requires execution in unison for a good three to four seconds. Because of this, it doesn't always work. A defender might beat a blocker to the frontside, to which they're both working to win the race. A tackle, fullback or tight end might miss his backside cut block. The first scenario shuts down the frontside point of attack, and the second stonewalls the cutback.

But it isn't often that both of those occurrences happen in one play. This makes the zone lethal, as it can lull a defense to sleep, but also carries the potential of breaking the big one.

The Dolphins utilized plenty of split zone runs, where a backside fullback or wingback would run parallel to the line and against the flow of the zone to block the backside, first-level defender. Against Pittsburgh, this man was tight end Dion Sims, but a concussion sidelined him during the game.

No matter, because Miami seemed to only improve in the absence of Sims, thanks to the blocking efforts of H-back MarQueis Gray. A former college quarterback, Gray boasts size and speed to get to the backside and eliminate, or at least impede a defensive end or outside linebacker whose job is to keep contain.

The key to defending the zone is two-fold: fight through the flowing resistance to jam up running lanes, and stay home on the backside. But when a blocker cuts down the backside linebacker, contain is suddenly lost, opening up a cutback alley that can produce big chunks of yards.

Ajayi is quick to spot a cutback lane. He seems to only improve with each week, as his one-cut style meshes well with his powerful running. He isn't the fastest back, but he runs with power, which breaks arm tackles and forces defenses to swarm him to bring him down. And when you add a lead blocker, that task becomes tougher.

Miami mixes it up occasionally from the zone scheme, sometimes pulling a backside guard to kick out an edge defender while the fullback leads from the backside through the hole on a variation of a counter play. Miami also occasionally wheel pulled a guard to lead through the hole, running the lead play late in the fourth. The heavy dosage of zone runs had actually lulled Pittsburgh's defensive front into flowing with an anticipated zone block, even when Miami didn't zone block the run. It resulted in an simple down block for right tackle Ja'Wuan James -- upon the snap, defensive tackle Daniel McCullers essentially moved himself inside to where James wanted to direct him -- sealing the inside of the hole and making it easier for guard Laremy Tunsil to pull through the hole and engage a linebacker at the second level, springing Ajayi for a 13-yard gain.

One possession later, Miami hit the home run.

If you scan Ajayi's play log, you'll see he doesn't gain his yards in massive chunks, but he is efficient, finishing second in distance traveled per every rush yard gained (2.8) in Week 7. Miami's run game chips away at defenses until it gets an advantageous defensive front and blocks it to near perfection. Ajayi's touchdown run came against a base front that put a total of six men on the line, leaving five defenders for the next two levels combined, and didn't shift toward the strength of the offense. Each member of the Dolphins' line engaged and blocked well. The key to whole play was Gray's fantastic, extended block on Mike Mitchell, which opened a lane for Ajayi to reach the second level, where Jarvis Landry was finishing off a long block of his own to give the back one man to break before racing at a top speed of 19.78 mph to paydirt.

Ajayi's durability -- he did leave twice in the fourth due to injury, but returned -- power, and exceptional vision fits perfectly in Miami's scheme. It took them six weeks to figure it out, and it isn't too complex. Buffalo and Pittsburgh threw multiple looks at Miami in an attempt to clog the middle -- Ajayi finished second with most carries against eight-plus defenders in the box (11 for 86 yards) -- and most of them didn't make much of a difference. When run well (think back to Denver's running attack with Terrell Davis in the late 1990s), the zone can be extremely difficult to stop. The Dolphins are getting closer to that level on the ground.

Other notes from Next Gen Stats this week:

  1. Tevin Coleman was blazing fast -- 20.35 mph fast -- on his 30-yard touchdown run against San Diego. But let's give props to 235-pound Jeremy Hill, who came 0.18 mph shy (20.17 mph, fourth fastest running back carrying the ball in Week 7) of matching Coleman's speed on his own 74-yard gallop to the promised land.
  1. It seems like we have a great receiving chart to put in this notebook every week for A.J. Green. This week is no different, though I learned -- thanks to Cincinnati's radio duo -- what A.J. stands for (Adriel Jeremiah). Green isn't alone though -- passing charts of the good and bad variety are also mixed in.
  1. Quick, decisive and accurate are Alex Smith's unusual three middle names. His parents' prescience was proven with his perfect passer rating of 158.3 against the blitz in Week 7.
  1. Poor Browns quarterbacks. Both Cody Kessler (27.2 percent of passes, 66.7 completion percentage) and Kevin Hogan (20.8 percent, 20 percent) finished in the top five in percentage of passes thrown outside the tackle box. For those who are wondering, no, Cleveland doesn't rely on designed rollouts. That's just how much the Browns' offensive line has struggled.
  1. Derek Carr has built himself a bit of a reputation as a gunslinger, but he was more of a 19th Century cannon on Sunday, leading all passers with the longest completed pass, which traveled an air distance of 62.9 yards.
  1. San Francisco had a tough time covering Russell Shepard, who finished second with 6.9 yards of separation per target. Philadelphia's Josh Huff was tops with 7.6 yards per target.
  1. On the flip side, Cincinnati didn't make Kessler or Hogan's day any easier, blanketing Terrelle Pryor and allowing just 0.9 yards of separation per target (four total).
  1. Of the top five blitzing teams in Week 7, only one -- Detroit, which blitzed on 39 percent of plays -- recorded a sack. The other four: Houston (60 percent), Tennessee (46.3 percent), Los Angeles (45.9 percent) and the New York Jets (42.2 percent).
  1. Quincy Enunwa was the week's fastest scoring ball carrier, topping out at 21.33 mph. Josh Huff's kick-return touchdown landed him in second at 21.21 mph. Colin Kaepernick was the fasted quarterback carrying the ball, hitting 20.66 mph.
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