Jonas Gray entered Sunday night’s game at Lucas Oil Stadium with 32 regular-season carries to his name. He left it with 37 more.
As the New England Patriots powered through the Indianapolis Colts, 42-20, Gray powered through the gaps graded by the offensive line in front of him. The 2012 undrafted free agent ran where he was asked to. He fell forward when he needed to.
In the process, the 5-foot-10, 225-pound tailback, who started only five college games before ACL, MCL and LCL tears ended his Notre Dame Career, did something few could have ever expected him to. He did something few have ever done.
Gray rushed for 201 yards and four touchdowns, becoming the third player in league history to rush for his first four NFL scores in one game and the first to do so since 1921. He became the third player in Patriots history to cross the 200-yard rushing mark and the first to cross the goal line for four rushing touchdowns in one regular-season game.
And in that one game, he became an integral part of the Patriots’ backfield.
One month ago, the 24-year-old was on the practice squad of his third team in three seasons. One January ago, the Pontiac, Mich. native was signing a reserve-futures contract. One season ago, he was on the Baltimore Ravens’ practice squad. And one season prior to that, he was on the Miami Dolphins’ physically unable to perform list.
Much has changed since then. Now, much is expected. Gray’s fourth career regular-season game put the ink on a story that could have never been told. But there’s reason to believe that his story is far from over.
No. 35 got back to the line of scrimmage on each of his 37 attempts versus Indianapolis. He also got beyond it on 35 of his attempts, accruing 14 first downs in addition to his four touchdowns along the way.
With the aid of eligible tight end Cameron Fleming, the trap and pull blocks of interior linemen Dan Connolly, Bryan Stork and Ryan Wendell, the edge strength of tackles Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, as well as the second-level lead of fullback James Develin, roads were there for Gray to travel.
Whether it was the A-gap, B-gap, C-gap or D-gap, he just had to find the right one.
He made his cuts, took the exchanges from quarterback Tom Brady and did. It was one cut and go. Yet his impact wasn’t solely rooted in volume or the blocks ahead of him; it was rooted in the efficiency and durability he ran with.
Gray broke two rushes over 15 yards and recorded over 100 of his yards after initial contact. The first momentous one arrived on 1st-and-10 with 9:52 remaining in the first quarter, when New England aligned in “22” personnel for an off-tackle run.
The halfback took the handoff and followed Develin to the edge, where Fleming and Solder had sealed off space. And from there, he kept his shoulders down and eyes up as he shed three Colts on his journey 16 yards upfield.
It took former Patriots safety Sergio Brown and reinforcement to bring him down thenceforth.
On the surface, Gray may not appear to be a stretch-play runner, but within that element of his game lies deception. His lane discipline and vision are often overshadowed by the broad, burly frame he assembles with it. And yet, he has shown in his small 70-carry sample size that he can run with the build-up speed to get to the flats before linebackers and safeties can do the same.
Part of that is athleticism. Part of that is urgency. Together the two traits were evidenced once again on a 3rd-and-1 just a series later, as the Patriots returned to a two-back, two-tight end set. The way in which Indianapolis responded, sending nine into the box, only accentuated it.
This time, Gray headed towards Vollmer and Fleming out right. He attacked the D-gap created by the two, tracing the footsteps of James Develin into linebacker territory. Then, he rode Colts safety Mike Adams 10 yards further for what was ultimately a 20-yard pickup.
Though Gray was part of a sequence of lucrative gains versus the Colts, he was also part of a sequence of tough yards. He did his best to validate the notion that he was built for them. And perhaps no situation illustrated that more than his 1st-and-goal try with just over three minutes remaining in the third quarter.
From two yards out and an eight-point advantage, New England’s offense went back to the one that got them there. Indianapolis, meanwhile, went to the goal-line defense to face the “23” grouping.
Despite a play-action touchdown catch by tight end Tim Wright earlier in the quarter, there was little uncertainty about what the Patriots were going to do with four downs to work with. There was little uncertainty about which player was getting the ball.
Brady inherited the snap and turned to Gray, who felt the inside runways closing around him.
The 6-foot, 340-pound Josh Chapman got to him first as he wedged ahead of Connolly at the one-yard line. The 6-foot-1, 254-pound Andrew Jackson crashed from the weak side to collide with him shortly thereafter. But Gray would not be stopped short, even if his legs were viced to the turf behind him.
A second effort forged him through, extending the football across the plane as a pile of rubble amounted above him.
The end result was his third TD of the contest.
Gray obtained six points in all four quarters against Indianapolis, and he obtained no less than 43 yards in each one. And by the time his final carry gained nine yards at the two-minute warning, he had obtained something that only Barry Sanders, Corey Dillon, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis and Doug Martin have obtained since 1991.
A 200-yard, four-score performance in the midst of November may not make Gray a long-term bell-cow back for New England. But there is a place for what he currently is in Foxborough.
And right now, he is moving forward.