FOXBOROUGH — Steve Gregory’s perception of the Patriots franchise was not unlike that of many NFL players.
“Just a first-class organization,’’ said the seventh-year safety out of Syracuse, who got an inside glimpse at “The Patriot Way” when he signed with New England as an unrestricted free agent March 16 after six years with the San Diego Chargers.
“It’s an organization that wins football games and you know is going to be there at the end, pretty much year in and year out. It’s a situation where you can go and really make a run at things.’’
At this stage of his season, and career, Gregory is in precisely the position he wanted for himself — with a chance to make a run at a Super Bowl.
So how did the 5-foot-11-inch, 200-pounder from Staten Island, N.Y., hope to be perceived in his first year with the Patriots?
“Just as somebody who gives it his all, who goes out and makes plays, is a team player, and someone who is fun to watch play,’’ he said.
Gregory gave New England fans (and friends and family in attendance) that impression in Thursday night’s 49-19 beatdown of the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium. He helped trigger a 35-point eruption in the second quarter by feasting on Jets turnovers — scoring his first NFL touchdown on a 32-yard fumble return, forcing a fumble, recovering another, and intercepting a pass by Mark Sanchez.
Afterward, Gregory shared the spotlight with quarterback Tom Brady and nose tackle Vince Wilfork as NBC’s Players of the Game. As his spoils, Gregory joined Brady and Wilfork in tearing into a turkey leg, a fitting Thanksgiving reward.
“I feel fully in the swing of things now, things are rolling,’’ he said. “We still have to keep grinding away, get better. We did a lot of good things [Thursday night] but as always, there will still be room for improvement.’’
Gregory gave a glimpse of his ballhawking tendencies early in the season when he registered his first interception as a Patriot. He had a 36-yard return of his first-quarter pick against Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in a stinging 31-30 setback in Week 3 at Baltimore.
After starting the first four games of the season at safety, Gregory was felled by a hip injury in Week 4, which caused him to miss the next four games.
“I was focused on getting better and mentally staying in it by going to the meetings and understanding the game plan we were running every week and understanding all the calls we were still running and changing and all that,” he said.
“It was just really mentally staying in it and physically just trying to get better. Once you get better, it’s about going out and getting used to the speed of the game and getting caught up with that type of stuff.’’
In his first game back, Gregory registered a season-high nine tackles against the Bills (including four unassisted) to help the Patriots cling to a 37-31 victory, which wasn’t sealed until safety Devin McCourty intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick in the end zone with 23 seconds remaining.
“Like I’ve always said, Dev’s a smart football player and he understands this defense and he played some safety last year and he has some experience at it,’’ said Gregory, who has helped oversee the transition from cornerback to safety by one of his Big East brethren from Rutgers.
“He’s a great athlete and he’s a competitor and you start putting those combinations together, you’re going to get a guy who wants to go out and win football games,’’ Gregory said. “He’s just an unselfish player. He’s doing a great job.’’
Did Gregory experience an element of doubt when he came back from his injury?
“I think in the back of your mind, there’s always that little bit,’’ he said. “But once you get into the flow of things, you start to feel comfortable and you start to realize you’re good to go.
“You can’t really simulate game speed and that adrenaline and the game atmosphere, so you’re always moving a little faster on game day than you do in practice,’’ he said. “So you can’t simulate that, and it’s something you’ve got to feel when you get out there and do it.’’
Gregory has developed a certain feel for going about his business in tandem with McCourty and the rest of the secondary, which early on was maligned but of late has seemingly begun to turn things around.
“We’re building a lot of chemistry back there,’’ Gregory said. “The guys are really starting to get to know one another. I think our communication and stuff has really been growing and we’re starting to put it together, so it’s always constantly working and trying to become better and that’s one of the things we’re trying to focus on.’’
So have the seven games he’s played this season done anything to alter his original perception of the organization?
“No, not at all,’’ Gregory said. “We have a lot of really good football players in this locker room and that’s the perception from the outside, also. It’s a good football team, coached well, and a lot of guys who play hard, do their job, week in and week out.
“If you don’t bring your A game, it’s a tough team to beat.’’
And that’s precisely the kind of team Gregory signed up to play for.
“We just want to be a group of guys who goes out and plays physical and plays hard and plays smart,” he said. “You can win football games when you do those things.’’
Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.