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Jay Ajayi and LeGarrette Blount: Deploying Philadelphia’s Running Backs

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How to divvy up Eagles RB touches in a suddenly crowded backfield

Miami Dolphins v New York Jets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Coming out of the preseason, Philadelphia had a problem.

The running game hadn’t shown any signs of life across August. The offensive line failed to generate any space, and the bargain buys of free agent LeGarrette Blount, 4th-round rookie Donnel Pumphrey, and UDFA Corey Clement struggled to capitalize on any daylight they found.

Coming out of the trade deadline, Philadelphia has the opposite problem.

It took a couple of weeks to get the engine growling, but LeGarrette Blount has averaged 14 touches and 70 yards (4.9 Y/C) across the last 6 games of the young season. With exactly 100 touches on the year, Blount is 2nd in the NFL in yards/carry for backs with at least 100 carries (Kareem Hunt). Jay Ajayi, with 3.37 yards/carry, is 18th out of the 19 qualifying backs on that list.

And that brings us to our conundrum: undeniably more talented, but less productive than Blount, newly-acquired Eagles RB Jay Ajayi throws a wrench in the RB balance currently carved out in Philadelphia. Do you ride Blount’s hot hand and trusty wheels, capitalize on Ajayi’s superior skill set, or try to walk the line between the two?

As Doug Pederson, Frank Reich, and Howie Roseman have all insisted, Blount remains the titular starter and is perfectly happy with this trade. However, it’s unlikely Blount is over the moon, as it would be irresponsible of this coaching staff to give Blount a higher number of touches than Ajayi, who is the younger and more dangerous runner of the two.

How will the touches likely be divided, then? Both film and statistics can help us better understand.

Film Review

Stop me if you’ve seen this before.

Crying out “Don’t run Blount outside!” is a tad reductionist, but the angst is understandable. Blount isn’t a poor outside runner, and getting him to the boundary on sweeps and counters can force smaller safeties and corners to fulfill the responsibilities usually held by linebackers. As we all know, safeties and corners generally have a poor time trying to tackle LeGarrette Blount.

Here rests Desmond King.

There’s a problem. Outside zone concepts, like the one seen above, don’t generate that matchup on corners and safeties. Blount still has to work through the skinny creases between defensive linemen and linebackers, but he doesn’t get an opportunity to build up his rumblin’, tumblin’, tackle-breakin’ momentum.

The ideal zone runner—especially outside zone—has the ability to stop on a dime, and the burst to get back to top speed right after. In a blink of an eye, they can transition from scraping east/west to firing north, slicing through the defensive wave.

Blount doesn’t exactly slice. Wrecking balls usually don’t.

Now, Ajayi can run the man concepts on which Blount excels—he did so in Miami with solid success. But it’s on those outside zone concepts where he’ll truly make a marked difference.

That burst? Blount hasn’t had that for years. Maybe even ever.

If you look at Ajayi’s measurements (6’0, 230 lbs) or, better yet, just look at Ajayi (scary dude), you’d assume he falls into that “wrecking ball” category with Blount—and he does. But Ajayi brings the special straight-line explosiveness, as well as excellent vision, that enable him to hit the creases of zone flow in a way that LeGarrette Blount can’t.

What does this mean for deployment?

Well, Doug Pederson has done a wonderful job over his tenure in Philadelphia, working both zone and man concepts into the running game. However, in the traditional West Coast offense—the grandfather scheme from which Pederson’s descends—zone running is the predominant style. It can make life far easier on your offensive linemen (read: Halapoulivaati Vaitai) and force the linebackers to play horizontally instead of downhill. With a dual-threat quarterback like Carson Wentz, Pederson can add the QB bootlegs and wrinkles that naturally stem from zone flow.

But zone has been lacking from Philadelphia’s running arsenal. Wendell Smallwood is their primary zone style back, and he has been fazed further and further out of the game plan as the weeks have gone on. Adding Ajayi allows Philadelphia to reintroduce those familiar zone concepts—but that isn’t even the true beauty of the Ajayi trade.

Before the trade, Philadelphia regularly tipped their hand with their RB personnel. LeGarrette Blount’s on the field? Carson’s probably going to be under center, and expect a power blocking concept—Blount struggles to pass protect, and go out for routes, so we can assume the ball’s staying on the ground. Wendell Smallwood? Much more likely a zone run. Corey Clement? It’s a pass.

But with Ajayi on the field, Philadelphia can better conceal their true intentions. Not only is he the most dynamic runner in the stable, but he’s the best pass protector, and is just as good of receiver as Smallwood/Clement. Ajayi has the potential, not only to bring the running attack up a few notches, but add greater depth to the play-action attack and better assist Halapoulivaati Vaitai on the edge.

Statistical Review

Off of the film, Jay Ajayi gives Philadelphia the zone threat they’ve lacked, as well as a multi-dimensional that can confuse defenses and disguise play design. But, as the introduction noted, Blount has found his rhythm—a devastating one at that—and he shouldn’t be interrupted.

Over the past six games, the Philadelphia Eagles have handed the ball off 29 times/game. If Ajayi were to demand the same market share of carries as he did in Miami this season (85.7%), he’d carry the rock 25 times/game, leaving only 4 totes for Blount. That’s a significant step down from his comfy 14 touch/game average.

Something’s got to give—but forcing these runners to sacrifice carries runs the risk of preventing them from establishing a rhythm. Both Ajayi and Blount excel when they take a few reps to get churning, notch a few hits on their belt. Neither fits the mold of the “change-of-pace back,” who can supply some instant juice in limited, spotty reps.

The Eagles, however, already seem to have a scripted use for Blount. Of his 100 carries, Blount has seen 30 in the 4th quarter—more than any other quarter of the game—and also enjoys his best yards/carry (5.8) in the closing period as well. This is indicative of Philadelphia’s game script as well: Blount has only 7 attempts this year when Philadelphia is trailing.

On the 10-6 Miami Dolphins of 2016, however, Ajayi saw only 18% of his carries come in the 4th quarter, and only 36% of his carries came when Miami had the lead. He wasn’t used to close a lead; he was used to build one.

Remember, Ajayi has a concerning injury history. It’s believed widely by league insiders that Ajayi may only play out this, his rookie contract, before his bad knee begins to catch up with him. Perhaps Miami deployed other runners when leading to minimize his workload where they could. Unlike Miami, Philadelphia has the running back corps to lessen Ajayi’s 25 carry/game load, and perhaps extend his longevity.

I expect Philadelphia to prioritize their balance between Blount and Ajayi, despite the latter’s talent. Keeping both the aging Blount and fragile Ajayi healthy into the playoffs will allow Philadelphia to ride their physical brand of football through cold weather and tough matchups.

Of the 29 touches a game, I expect Ajayi to see 15 to start, with a 20-touch ceiling should he catch on quickly. Pederson and Duce Staley would be wise to deploy Ajayi early and often, to set up the play-action game and get him rollin’. Wendell Smallwood/Kenjon Barner (whoever doesn’t get cut) is the back I would use to spell Ajayi, as both present greater threats in the passing game than their counterparts. Ajayi’s versatility allows Pederson to craft a more complex and fluid opening script, and opens the possibility of more no-huddle sequences.

Knock Blount’s number down to 10, and expect the brunt of those carries to come in the second half--especially when Philadelphia has the lead. If Ajayi’s a “You can’t stop what I’m about to do” back, Blount is a “You know what I’m about to do, and you still can’t stop it” player. Fresh legs help Philadelphia extend drives and dominate the time-of-possession battle.

In short yardage situations, I expect Philly to tip the hat to Ajayi, who has picked up 5 first downs on 7 attempts in 3rd/4th and short situations this year, while Blount is 3 for 9. Within the 10? Ajayi has 4 carries for 7 yards, while Blount has 12 carries for 4 yards.

Let’s just let Carson keep throwing it there.