In the past, the New England Patriots have been criticized as a finesse team.
If Sunday night's 42-20 road win over the Indianapolis Colts was any indication, they could be transitioning to smashmouth mode just in time for the Foxborough winter weather to kick into high gear.
Due to a season-ending knee injury earlier this year, that running game will not be spearheaded by Stevan Ridley. Instead, it will be first-year back Jonas Gray claiming the majority of the carries for the Patriots.
The Colts entered Sunday night's game with a top-10 run defense, and Gray gashed it time after time to the tune of 199 rushing yards and four touchdowns. As a team, the Patriots picked up 244 rushing yards.
|Patriots running game|
|First 9 games (average)||27.8||101.2||3.6||.6|
According to Sports-Reference, Sunday marked the first time since before college that Gray has earned more than 21 carries in a game.
Some folks in Patriots Nation may not have expected the big night, but Ben Volin of The Boston Globe reports at least one person had a good feeling Gray was in for a big performance:
They'll need more big outings like this from Gray, and his style lends itself to that.
Not only was Gray hitting the right holes against the Colts—and not only were those holes wide open—but Gray repeatedly lowered his shoulder and picked up extra yards.
And it seemed the closer the Patriots drew to the goal line, the more intensely Gray ran.
His emergence could not have come at a better time.
Not only will the running game's importance be ratcheted up week by week as November turns to December, but Sunday night's performance also precedes another grueling four-game stretch in the Patriots' schedule, during which they will face the Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins.
Each of those opponents has a winning record. Two of them—the Lions and Dolphins—have defenses that rank in the top 10 against the run.
These past two games versus the Broncos and Colts have been big tests against the Patriots' top competition in the AFC, but the opponents won't get any easier.
The Patriots know how important it can be to keep a running game going in the second half of the season. It was around this time last year that LeGarrette Blount really started to accelerate things on the ground.
Pro-Football-Reference indicates that from Week 11 to 17 of the 2013 season, Blount rushed 83 times for 460 yards (5.5 yards per carry) and five touchdowns.
Gray's performance was unprecedented. He is already nearly halfway to Blount's final seven-game total from last season and has nearly matched Blount's touchdown mark in a single game.
In fact, his night was even historic.
Of course, he can also thank a group of linemen—and tight end Rob Gronkowski—who continually opened up gaping holes for him to run through. A lot of times, Gray would get past the line of scrimmage and beyond before he would be touched or even see a defender in his path.
That's a far cry from an offensive line that was viewed as the weak link earlier in the season. Now? It is the key to the Patriots' success.
Make no mistake, though, Gray earned his yards. When there were defenders in his path, he quickly erased them by either juking them out of their shoes or bowling over them and knocking them to the ground.
Repeat dominant performances from the running game will only continue to open things up for the passing game as well. The Colts gave the Patriots' ground attack more respect as the contest wore on, which allowed quarterback Tom Brady to get in rhythm as the Colts stacked the box.
Brady was like a completely different quarterback in the first and second halves. He completed 52.6 percent of his passes and had a 24.8 passer rating before halftime, and 81.8 percent of his passes with a perfect passer rating after halftime.
That coincided with the Colts devoting more attention to the running game—an endeavor that failed emphatically.
Brady has also relied heavily on play-action passing this season. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he has attempted 28.7 percent of his throws this season following a play-action fake. That ranks as the fifth-highest percentage in the NFL.
Over the past few weeks, the offense has been a fireworks show featuring Brady and his supporting cast of weapons. In the coming weeks, the offense could need to look more like a monster truck rally.
If the Patriots look like they did on Sunday night going forward, that transition should be smooth.