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Jay Ajayi could be a major thorn in the Steelers’ side for the second time this season

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The AFC’s second-leading rusher presents an immense challenge to Pittsburgh’s soft run-defense.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Miami Dolphins

The Pittsburgh Steelers were on the losing end of Jay Ajayi’s breakout performance in Week 6, when the second-year back tallied 204 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries in a blowout victory for the Dolphins.

Of course, we see now that Ajayi’s career performance was no outlier, as he’s posted three 200-yard games this season and finished fourth in the NFL in rushing. Consider the following scenario:

Player 1 is a bona fide MVP candidate who rushed for 1,268 yards and seven touchdowns on 261 carries. In addition, Player 1 rushed for 69 first downs and lost only a single fumble.

Player 2, meanwhile, rushed for 1,272 yards and eight touchdowns on 260 carries. 60 of his carries were good for first downs and, he too, lost just a single fumble.

Pretty similar, yeah?

Le’Veon Bell is Player 1. Ajayi is Player 2.

Obviously, it would be borderline sacrilegious to suggest that Ajayi is on Bell’s level in terms of being a complete backfield threat. But the numbers suggest that, as a runner at least, Ajayi is every bit as productive as Bell — which presents a big problem for a Steelers team that has allowed 353 total rushing yards (on nearly six yards per carry) during its past two games. Week 17’s game against Cleveland gets a semi-asterisk due to the fact that several starters either didn’t play at all or played sparingly, though the majority of Pittsburgh’s front-seven remained intact.

A major concern is the health of Pittsburgh’s defensive line. Ankle injuries to Ricardo Mathews and Johnny Maxey have further decimated Pittsburgh’s already paper-thin defensive front that already has been absent Cam Heyward’s services for the remainder of the season. Even if Mathews and Maxey suit up on Sunday, they could both be hobbled by ankle injuries, which do tend to linger. Fortunately, star defensive end Stephon Tuitt practiced fully and he’s expected to start against Miami, which should give Pittsburgh a much-needed boost.

It’s an obvious point to make, but Pittsburgh might need to jump out to an early lead if they hope to limit Ajayi’s impact. Miami is 9-2 with Ajayi in the starting lineup. In the Dolphins’ nine wins with Ajayi in the lineup this season, he is averaging more than 22 carries per game, but playing in two losses, he averaged only 14 carries per game.

Preventing another 200-yard effort from Ajayi is a primary concern for the Steelers this week, and it’s safe to assume that they vast majority of their defensive game-planning has been devised with that goal in mind. All things considered, the formula for success seems simple: stop Ajayi — stop the Dolphins.

Strangely enough, Pittsburgh is somewhat connected with how Ajayi wound up in Miami in the first place. In 2013, the Steelers opted to let former WR Mike Wallace test free agency. The Dolphins subsequently signed Wallace to a long-term contract, only to trade him to the Minnesota Vikings two years later for several draft picks in the 2015 NFL Draft. Miami then used the fifth-round pick that it acquired from Minnesota to draft Ajayi. (A stretch, I know, but I thought it was interesting).