Apparently, Elandon Roberts is a big BSJ fan.
After Sunday's victory over the Dolphins, I visited the linebacker at his locker room in an effort to dig out a little more information about his resurgence in the middle of the Patriots' defense. After three-straight weeks of lights out play, I dispatched Christopher Price to find out why he was suddenly playing his best football. The result was this fine piece, but Roberts wasn't all that helpful.
To me, it seemed that his improvement was directly connected to this touchdown that he gave up against the Jets:
Since then, Roberts has been terrific. It appeared he finally found the right balance between his natural instincts, and playing within the framework of the defense. I figured Roberts might tell us that touchdown made him refocus on what he was doing, but Roberts wouldn't give in.
So I tried again after the Dolphins game. Again, I got the same answer as Price: "Whatever coaches need. Whatever my team needs, I’m just going to go hard and do what I have to do. That starts in practice."
Then, Roberts let me in on a little secret. Apparently, someone sent Roberts one of my 53-man roster predictions from the preseason when I had Roberts off the team in favor of Trevor Bates. Roberts said he looks at it every day for motivation. Apparently, no one bothered to send Roberts my final roster where I had him on the team and Bates off, but there's not a whole lot of motivation in that. You're welcome, Elandon.
But the whole episode got me thinking about Robert's evolution as a linebacker in the Patriots' system, and Sunday's game seemed like a good jumping off point because it featured the good (two sacks) and not-so-good (touchdown, gap responsibility) in his game.
Roberts in 2016
Roberts went from late-round pick and on the bench, to being a breath of fresh air as he showed some playmaking ability in his debut against the Browns, which earned him more playing time. After the bye week and the Jamie Collins trade, Roberts got his big shot against the Seahawks, but he fell back to Earth and became more of a role player from that point on. The last image we have of Roberts in '16 was likely being at fault for the 39-yard pass to Devonta Freeman that could have keyed the game-sealing drive for the Falcons, if they had run the ball and elected to kick a field goal.
Roberts in 2017
The truth is Roberts had an underwhelming camp and preseason, and we don't know what would have happened to him had Shea McClellin not gone on injured reserve, as Roberts only played nine snaps in the season opener. And Roberts wasn't all that effective in the first six games of the season.
But since sitting out the Falcons game with an ankle injury, Roberts has played his best and most consistent football of the season. The question is, why?
I'd say a direct line can be drawn to the coaching of Matt Patricia and linebackers coach Brian Flores.
In 2014, Jamie Collins got off to a rough start that season in a read-and-react role at linebacker. The low point was that 41-14 loss at the Chiefs where most of the focus was on Tom Brady, but the defense was just as poor. To that point, Collins wasn't being put in a position to succeed. He was an athletic linebacker whose best talents were attacking the line and getting into passing lanes.
After that game, Patricia figured out a way to let Collins do what he does best. They either brought him on pass/run blitzes, or dropped him into coverage. Patricia took the guesswork out of the game for Collins, and he was able to fly around the field and make plays.
Fast forward to this season, and Patricia is doing the same thing with Roberts, as illustrated on this sack where he beats The Ghost of Mike Pouncey.
Like Collins, Roberts is at his best when his mind is uncluttered and he's able to use his athletic ability. The Patriots appear to be doing the same thing with Roberts: attacking the line, and dropping into coverage.
Flores should be commended for making Roberts more disciplined in his reads, and sound in his technique (he gets off blockers much better). Still, there's room for Roberts to improve.
The Dolphins' swing pass for a touchdown looked like a similar concept to the Super Bowl, and other teams will continue to copy this play.
And on this 11-yard run by the Dolphins, veteran Patrick Chung tried to get Roberts to shift gaps, but Roberts wouldn't listen, and that resulted in a big gain.
Roberts has come a long way since last season, and the Patriots need even more from him going forward. The Jamie Collins Plan seems to be working for Roberts, now they just need to fine tune it.
Here are the positional ratings against the Dolphins:
Quarterback (5 out of 5)
Tom Brady was outstanding in this game, especially considering how much pressure he was under for much of it. I only had him for three "minus" plays: throw behind Rob Gronkowski on third down, a pass with too much heat to Dwayne Allen, and the interception. That's it. On the other side, I had him for 11 outstanding plays, including four money throws against pressure.
Then you have yet another example of the subtle brilliance of Brady. Remember that 37-yard strike to a wide open Brandin Cooks? That doesn't happen without great play design by Josh McDaniels, and subtle movements by Brady to manipulate the defenders. Really good stuff:
On the other interception ... pressure forced Brady into the throw, and he read it differently than Danny Amendola.
Running backs (5 out of 5)
Another week, another five broken tackles for Dion Lewis, who also had a very nice blitz pickup. This big run was a mixture of Lewis' skill, execution by the offensive line and down-field blocks from Gronkowski and Phillip Dorsett.
Rex Burkhead also continued his strong play, as did James Develin. ... James White continues to flounder a little bit. It's almost like he can't figure out what his role is. And for the second time this season, and on almost the exact same play, White had a chance to pick up a first down if he slipped out of a tackle, and again he fell inches short. It's those types of plays that keep him from getting more carries.
Receivers (4 out of 5)
Again, a lot of good out of this group, but also some unforced miscues (Gronkowski: false start; Cooks: drop, block in the back; Amendola: route; Dwayne Allen: screen). ... Jacob Hollister has shown indications that he's ready for more of a role now that Martellus Bennett is on injured reserve. His blocking has gotten a lot better and he has good hands. Time for a pop in playing time.
Offensive line (2 out of 5)
This may have been Nate Solder's best game of the season, with only two pressures allowed and one penalty (false start). That being said, Dolphins RE Andre Branch is not good and has been a free-agent bust. Solder also had three "plus" run blocks, as the team is letting him block more down the field. ... Shaq Mason got off to a rough start with a hit and a hurry allowed to Ndamukong Suh early, but he settled down and played well. ... Ted Karras, Joe Thuney and right tackle (LaAdrian Waddle/Cam Fleming) had really tough games. Jordan Phillips wore out Karras and Thuney, and Cameron Wake (5.5 hits, sack) had a monster game against the right tackles.
Defensive line (4.5 out of 5)
Man, what a difference Malcom Brown makes in the middle of this line. After looking a little iffy against the run as Brown missed three-straight games, the stuff percentage got a big boost thanks to the powerful Brown being back in the lineup. ... Trey Flowers is just outstanding. Game in and game out, he's basically mistake-free and impactful. Can't ask for much more. ... Newcomer Eric Lee played 25 snaps and had 1.5 sacks, a half stuff and got off a block to make a run tackle. ... Deatrich Wise might be hitting a rookie wall. He was part of group with Adam Butler and Lawrence Guy that was invisible.
Linebackers (2.5 out of 5)
Kyle Van Noy continues to do a great Dont'a Hightower impersonation as the defense's inside/outside guy. Van Noy was outstanding in this game, and looks completely comfortable in Hightower's old role. ... David Harris did not play well. Missed two tackles and failed to fill a gap. ... Roberts, as we already talked about, was a bit hit and miss.
Secondary (4.5 out of 5)
Outside of Malcolm Butler's pass interference penalty and a missed tackle, this was a great secondary performance and might have been the best of the season. ... The Patriots are covering really well in the secondary of late — there aren't many places to go with the ball. ... No reason for Jonathan Jones not to continue as the team's highest-graded cornerback, but Stephon Gilmore may have gotten the edge this week on points. It was his best game of the season, including this interception.
Kyle Van Noy: If you squint, you might think that No. 53 is actually 54. He's doing that good of an impersonation.
Dion Lewis: Keying the offense at this point. The only question is whether he physically lasts the season or not. Because the Patriots will be tempted to give him even more touches vs. Steelers.
Trey Flowers: Had 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. Constantly impactful.
Honorable mention: Stephon Gilmore Tom Brady, Eric Lee, Nate Solder, Jonathan Jones, Malcom Brown, Rex Burkhead.
Ted Karras: Besides the early snap for a touchdown, he had a rough time on three screens.
Cam Fleming: Played 12 snaps and allowed a sack and had a poor run block. Going to need a lot of help if he has to start on Sunday.
David Harris: If things don't start to get better, we might see more of Trevor Reilly.
Dishonorable mention: LaAdrian Waddle, Joe Thuney, James White.