With only five days to prepare for his first game with the Eagles, running back Jay Ajayi took 17 offensive snaps and logged eight carries while learning only a limited sampling of plays. Ajayi benefited from the bye week coming after the trade, and his workload is expected to grow Sunday against the rival Dallas Cowboys with two full weeks between games.
“I look at our game plan for this week, there’s probably not a play on there I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting his number on, as far as him learning it and knowing what to do,” offensive coordinator Frank Reich said Tuesday. “That speaks a lot about him as a player.”
On Ajayi’s first day with the Eagles, he retreated to a meeting room with running backs coach Duce Staley. They remained there for hours, going over the Eagles’ scheme and protection requirements. It was a crash course on the Eagles offense just to get Ajayi ready to play four days later.
Staley emerged from the meeting room with an endorsement.
“We’re good,” Staley said, according to Reich. “This guy’s going to be fine, mentally.”
That was all Reich needed to hear. But he also watched Ajayi during Ajayi’s first week and felt more confident in the unknown of how Ajayi would transition to a new scheme in the middle of the season.
“We’ve been around this game long enough as coaches [to know] when a guy gets it,” Reich said. “And Jay gets it. You just feel that right from that start.”
In the initial interactions, Ajayi impressed Reich with the way he grasped the offense — especially protections, which has been a point of emphasis for the Eagles’ running backs in recent weeks. Because of the Eagles’ plans to bring Ajayi along slowly, Reich wasn’t expecting much in the first game. Coach Doug Pederson said Ajayi would get only 10-15 plays to learn, and the coaching staff was impressed with how quickly he absorbed the information.
“That was more than I was anticipating,” Reich said. “Sure, Duce gave us that good news. …But as the week went on, the package grew. Quite honestly, we put numbers and backs on certain plays. By the end of the week, he was adapting so well and learning so well we were adding his number to plays because he could handle it.”
When Staley was asked last week what makes Ajayi special, the first characteristic Staley mentioned was Ajayi’s intelligence. It was something Staley remembered from interviewing Ajayi at the combine in 2015. Staley said when a running back has that attribute, “it’s easy to learn a new system.”
Staley said a running back must learn new terminology, blocking schemes, play calls, and how the Eagles see the game. The quicker that comes, the more able Ajayi will be to show his other characteristics.
“What else is special is leg drive,” Staley said. “When there’s nothing there, you can get back to the line of scrimmage or you can get me two yards. That’s one of the things I saw on film and one of the things you actually saw [against the Broncos].”
The Eagles go into each game with rushes designed for each running back. One play you’ll see Ajayi run often is the outside zone, which was the play call when Ajayi rushed for his 46-yard touchdown. Staley said a running back must have good vision and understanding of the blocking schemes to successfully run an outside zone play. He also must understand what the defensive front is trying to do, so the eyes must be in the right place.
The Eagles will tailor Ajayi’s play calls to what he does best, and they seem committed to continuing to feature LeGarrette Blount in the running game. Corey Clement has earned the coaching staff’s trust, too. But Ajayi is expected to emerge as the Eagles’ lead running back, and from the way Reich discussed it, his understanding of the offense will not be a hurdle.
“I think the best thing to say about it is it’s not an issue,” Reich said. “It’s not prohibiting us because we do things the way we do with our backs and it’s by committee, we’re not hampered by the fact that he’s relatively new. …He’s able to handle whatever we give him at this point.”
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