Four different New England Patriots combined for 21 rushing yards in the first half of Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium. Jonas Gray was not one of them.
The practice-squad promotion, a month removed from a 37-carry, 201-yard, four-touchdown performance, watched through his facemask from the sideline and only left it to cover kickoffs. One quarter passed, then another as the former Miami Dolphins running back made his first contribution, tackling current Dolphins returner Jarvis Landry after a gain of 26.
Yet as the Patriots’ offense stepped on to the field for the third quarter of what was a 14-13 game, Gray followed. He followed to make a different kind of contribution, after having rushed for 13 yards on three carries over the New England’s last three games.
Soon, the 5-foot-10, 225-pound back would follow his blocks to lead the team in rushing.
It took just four carries for him to do so.
Gray would add on to those totals by the time New England secured the AFC East with a 41-13 victory over Miami. He started the second half and finished it with 11 carries for 62 yards, while running backs LeGarrette Blount and Shane Vereen, wideout Julian Edelman and quarterback Tom Brady finished with 46 yards and two scores on 18 carries between them.
The reemergence of No. 35 wasn’t about big plays. It wasn’t about touchdowns. It was about finding the opening and getting to in the way running backs coach Ivan Fears taught him to. And Gray did so in his own decisive way, turning negative runs into positive ones.
He trusted his eyes, feet and lead blockers to reach the corner, cut and go.
“That guy came in running like he was possessed,” Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell told the media afterwards. “A guy that’s had a big game and he’s been on the bench for a few weeks, but when he got his chance tonight he came out here and showed up.”
With a quick first step and a violent cutback, the 24-year-old Pontiac, Mich., native carved through the New England’s blocking lanes for gains that added up. Two runs each picked up five, and five more picked up six, nine, 13 and 14 as he lowered his pad level and fell forward.
And in the process, Gray showed that while he may not have the build-up speed of the 6-foot, 250-pound Blount – who filtered in for Vereen in power sets and Gray in goal-line sets – he may have the blend of assertiveness, burst and size to be a constant.
A constant who can set up overpursuit on the inside or out.
And for 20 snaps, he was one.
“They’re two good backs to have late in the year right now, when running the ball is of the utmost importance,” fullback James Develin said of Gray and Blount during his Monday appearance on WEEI’s Middays with MFB. “‘LG’ is heavier, but he’s like sneakily fast. And Jonas, he’s like a little bowling ball. He gets going and it’s just no stopping him.”
Gray was stopped once for a loss of one, once for a gain of one, and once for a gain of two and a first down during Week 15.
But over his 11 carries, he came away with at least four yards on eight of them. And he came away averaging 5.6 yards per rush versus a 22nd-ranked Miami rush defense that had conceded 661 yards over its last three games.
He had run along with that trend when it looked like the Patriots had run against it.
“I thought he ran well,” head coach Bill Belichick said of Gray in his Monday conference call. “Obviously, we had a lot better opportunities. We did a lot of things better in the second half than we did in the first half. So, run blocking, pass blocking, running, passing, I mean, all the above were better. But he did a good job with his opportunities. We have confidence in all our backs. They’ve all been productive for us. Whichever ones are in there we have confidence in.”
When Gray has been in, there haven’t been many home runs. But there is something to be said for putting the ball in play. And on Sunday, he was given the chance to do just that.