With about six minutes remaining in the first half of New England's 33-13 win over Cleveland, Patriots rookie linebacker Elandon Roberts made a play that he probably won't forget for a very long time.
The sixth-round pick out of Houston was lined up in the middle of the Patriots defense with the Browns pinned deep in their own territory. Off the snap, Roberts quickly diagnosed that running back Isaiah Crowell would be taking a hand-off and look for room behind All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas.
Thomas chipped defensive tackle Malcom Brown before leaving the block and heading Roberts' way. The only issue? Roberts was into Thomas' chest before Thomas knew. The 6-foot-6, 312-pounder was blown backwards and into Crowell, knocking Crowell to the ground as soon as he got to the line of scrimmage.
It was an explosive pop from Roberts, who checks in at 6-feet, 235 pounds, and a signature play in what was somewhat of a breakout game. He led the team with seven tackles, and he played a season-high 31 snaps.
In three of New England's five games thus far, Roberts has been a healthy scratch, but there's a reason the Patriots decided to keep him around after training camp. In a move that surprised some, he beat out fellow linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill due to his instincts and tackling ability. And he consistently, coach Bill Belichick pointed out, played with impressive physicality despite being relatively undersized -- especially in New England where bigger linebackers have been the norm.
- Breer: We'll know a lot more about Patriots after these next two weeks
- Know Thine Enemy: Patriots vs. Bengals
- Curran: Bennett's rise may make keeping him around harder
Asked to compare Roberts -- particularly his size and physicality -- to other linebackers, Belichick made reference to a pair of well-known, recently-retired players.
"I certainly noticed that play where he came down and hit Joe Thomas," Belichick said. "That was an explosive hit . . . You know, London Fletcher was a guy like that. Probably another player that played bigger than his size. Explosiveness, ran well, instinctive. Ray Lewis I think got a lot bigger but I remember when I worked him out at Miami, he wasn’t a big guy. He was about 225 at that point, 228, somewhere in there, you know, 6-feet. But he was an explosive player who ran very well, in the 4.65 range or something like that, 4.62 somewhere in there."
Belichick said that he just so happened to come across Roberts during the pre-draft process, having had no idea of who he was until he dissected some film on Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds. Roberts and Houston beat Navy 52-31 in November of last year.
"In that game Reynolds threw for 300 yards or something like that," Belichick said. "He threw a lot of passes in the game, and that was the game of his career that he threw the most so I wanted to watch that. And when I watched that I kept noticing the middle linebacker for Houston. And he made a ton of plays in that game. I don’t know how many tackles he had but they weren’t all on the option play because he blitzed, he just showed up on plays, showed up a lot. I thought he ran well.
"I didn’t even know who he was so I went and got the information on him and so forth. That’s when I first noticed him. I’d say in scouting him throughout his college career – good production, particularly his senior year, runs well, probably plays to or maybe a little bigger than his size. He’s got some explosion. Obviously he doesn’t have the kind of length that some players have at that position but he plays strong, he’s instinctive, he can find the ball, he runs well. When [linebackers] coach [Brian] Flores went down and worked him out he confirmed all of those things plus how hardworking of a player he is and so forth. Chad O’Shea’s father is down there as the trainer, Mike O’Shea. And so, Mike [O’Shea] and I go back a long ways about as far as Chad does. He was very complimentary of Elandon’s work ethic and toughness and leadership and so forth."
So the Patriots picked him, and after Sunday's win -- which included an eye-opening run stuff -- it looks like they landed a young hard-hitting linebacker with promise.