Elandon Roberts

Where have Patriots LBs improved? Look at covering pass-catching backs

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Where have Patriots LBs improved? Look at covering pass-catching backs

Third quarter, Patriots versus the Raiders. Elandon Roberts lined up in the middle of the defense, the only off-the-ball linebacker on this second-down play from midfield. Roberts looked intently into the Oakland backfield, trying to decipher where quarterback Derek Carr would go on the play. 

At the snap of the ball, Carr released his running back, Jalen Richard, to the right of the formation. With the Pats playing man-to-man, Roberts had to hurry to cover the quicker, faster Richard. The second-year pro also had to skirt around a slight pick by wide receiver Amari Cooper. Successfully navigating that landmine, Roberts went stride for stride with Richard. 

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Carr still identified that as the matchup to exploit but the throw clanged off the back of Roberts’ helmet. Not the result Carr was looking for, and despite the ugliness at the tail end of the play, yet another sign of the Pats improving in an area that early in the season had been an issue.

“It's certainly a good observation,” said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “That's part of the process as you go through the year and understanding your opponents and what they like to do from the standpoint of plays. So certainly on that particular play where it might be a situation where they're trying to pick him or get him in a bad coverage matchup and he did a good job of getting through it.”

Covering running backs coming out of the backfield is not something that the Pats have been particularly adept at over the years. Roberts, especially, seemed lost in those spots in his rookie season. But with Dont’a Hightower lost for the season, the Pats have had to spread out some of those responsibilities and Roberts, 23, the University of Houston product, is growing in that department.

“[He's] someone that works really hard to know where his help is in both situations whether it's leveraging a run play or leveraging a pass play,” complimented Patricia. “He's really trying to learn and understand that at a much higher level which he's really trying to do a good job of.”

It wasn’t just that play and it wasn’t just Roberts. In the opening quarter, Kyle Van Noy swarmed Richard in the right flat, limiting the shifty back to just four yards. Later, Trevor Reilly quickly snuffed out a swing pass to Richard. Bill Belichick - like Patricia - has taken notice.

“I think that’s a very competitive group of players on our team,” Belichick said. “So again, just trying to work on our fundamentals, and individual techniques, and try to work each week on our opponent, and their tendencies, the way they do things to match it up against. Those guys work hard at both of those areas.”

That work will need to continue. The Pats will get two doses in three weeks of Miami running back Damien Williams, who in limited snaps has made an impact as a receiver. There’s also Le’Veon Bell in Pittsburgh, the skilled trio of Bilal Powell, Matt Forte and Elijah McGuire for the Jets and LeSean McCoy in Buffalo. In other words, no resting our recent success.

“We're obviously going to look at the other aspect of it too and say, 'Well this is where we think we need to improve and this is where we think we need to make sure that we have this tightened up because this showed up,'" Patricia said. "Whether or not – it could be a bad situation for us whether it's just a – maybe it's a particular look that offense gives us or a particular defensive call.

That no doubt earns a nod from the head coach, who never believes what’s good is good enough.

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For Patriots, 'next man up' is a way of life

For Patriots, 'next man up' is a way of life

FOXBORO -- How many times have you heard the Patriots utter the phrase “Next Man Up”? So often that -- if  you’re like me -- you’ve become numb to it. Besides, isn’t that what the sport is all about? There's going to be attrition. It’s a league-wide thing. It has to be.

But unlike other franchises, which come unglued at the first sign of adversity, the Pats have managed not only to get by but often thrive. 

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The most recent example came Sunday, a 21-13 win over the Los Angeles Chargers. The previous week against Atlanta, the Pats' defense had finally played like we believed they were capable . . . but then lost their most impactful player, Dont’a Hightower, during that game to a torn pec muscle that will likely cost him the rest of the season. Yet this unit, not only without Hightower but also starters Malcom Brown, Stephon Gilmore and nickel corner Eric Rowe, limited Philip Rivers to 212 yards passing. How is that possible?

“I think it starts with Coach [Bill] Belichick, his leadership, the way he’s coaches,” said Matthew Slater. “The way he’s prepared every man on this roster -- from Tom Brady to the last guy on this practice squad  -- everyone is prepared the same way. The expectation, the bar, is the same for everyone and it’s like that every single day. So when you get into a situation where a guy’s number is called, it’s not new to him. It’s not totally foreign. Yes, he’s asked to do something a little bit different, but Coach and his staff have done the best  they can to try and prepare guys for those situations.”

“It’s not foreign to us,” said Duron Harmon. “We’ve been down a lot of players since I’ve been here. [Rob Gronkowski] went down, [Jerod] Mayo, Vince [Wilfork] . . . guys who are good players, players we lean on. But year in and year out, we find guys who just step up and do what they need to do: Just be consistent and play good football for us.”

Rex Burkhead is relatively new to this organization, coming over during the free-agency period last offseason. But as the son of a coach, he recognizes the attention to detail and what it translates to, not just for the first guy on the roster but the last as well.

“Lots of preparation here from the mental side, the physical side,” he said. “You really have to be on top of it . . . I think it’s kudos to our coaching staff for getting that next guy prepared. That’s the mentality that’s been here in the past and they prove that when those guys gets a chance, they do well.”

Burkhead recalls numerous times being quizzed by Belichick or another coach as you go from one meeting room to the next, or veer off toward the weight room. That’s nothing new in Foxboro but it’s not like that everywhere else. Certainly not in Cincinnati, where Burkhead was for the first four years of his career.

When you talk to players from different organizations, you truly understand how different that part of the equation is. One newer Patriot told me “it’s so [bleeping] stressful” and it “makes you hate them at times.” But “at the end of the day, they’re making sure you’re on your toes. That you’re involved. You can’t argue with it. Those Lombardi Trophies say it all.”

So Belichick and his staff get rave reviews for making the “Next Man Up” mantra not only a thing, but a thing that works. However, this isn’t just about the big brains in the corner offices. This is about the players buying in.

That’s not always easy; consider the egos involved. Yet from the top of the roster down to the bottom, the Pats usually get full commitment across the board.

“You know a guy like Tom [Brady] makes guys like myself, or guys that don’t play a ton of receiver, feel involved,” said Slater. “A guy like Devin McCourty making the practice squad safety feel like he’s involved. I think there’s a great deal of player leadership.”

Part of that leadership was lost, though, when Hightower was forced out of the lineup. The Pats had to lean on the erratic Elandon Roberts and a slowed veteran like David Harris and put even more on Kyle Van Noy’s plate. That’s less than ideal, but what else can you do?

“It’s hard, but you have to,” said Harmon. “No one is going to give us the production that [Hightower] did because no one is the player that High is. High is a special player, a special talent player. But you can’t sit here and harp on it. We have to find ways to get production that he [gave the Patriots] out of different people, whether it’s one person doing all his jobs or different guys coming together to do what he did. Maybe it’s three or four guys. It sucks we lost him, but worrying about that isn’t going to help us win games. It has to be the next man up. It has to be that mentality because it’s going to make sure that everybody has confidence in each other going out there and playing good ball.”

It sounds easy, but the reality is it’s far from easy. Johnson Bademosi isn’t suppose to find out shortly before a game against the Jets that he’s not just going to be a special teamer, but he’ll be the starting corner opposite Malcolm Butler and never come off the damn field. But when Gilmore’s concussion symptoms popped up late in the week, or early in the weekend, Bademosi got the call and he responded like he had been there and done that before. Why?

“I would say trust, and you build that trust through practice,” noted Harmon. “I would say Bademosi is the perfect example. Him getting ready for the Jets game. He didn’t know he was going to play all week until Friday or Saturday morning, but for him to be in the meetings, asking questions -- even when he wasn’t starting -- then in practice, playing good football and being consistent when he was thrown in . . . that’s how you build trust. That’s everybody here. Everybody wants to win. Everybody knows how important winning is to us in here. So everybody on this whole roster goes out each and every day and tries his hardest just to not let the team down.”

“Certainly, I think on an individual by individual basis, you have to take a lot of pride in being a professional and understanding [that] I may have this role but I could get called into [a different] role, so I have to prepare myself for all of these roles,” added Slater. “And I think when you get guys that are professional and you get guys that are dedicated to their craft, guys that are invested in the concept of team and doing what’s best for the team . . . when you get in those situations, you have confidence in those guys.”

That confidence is earned in Foxboro and makes the “Next Man Up” a part of this organization’s DNA. Without it, injuries like the one to Hightower or to Julian Edelman could derail a season long before the playoffs roll around. But not here. No how. No way. It’s just not allowed, from top to bottom.

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How was Patriots defense able to pick up the slack with Hightower out?

How was Patriots defense able to pick up the slack with Hightower out?

FOXBORO -- When Melvin Gordon sprinted 87 yards for a touchdown on the second Chargers drive of the game, it would have been fair to wonder: Is this what it's going to look like without Dont'a Hightower?

One of the best run defenders on the Patriots and arguably their most important communicator in the front-seven, Hightower's absence figured to show up in certain situations with Los Angeles in town. But for it to happen so quickly? And with such immediate results? 

It was alarming. 

But instead of that single play foreshadowing a calamitous drop-off for Bill Belichick's defense, it was the outlier. The Patriots allowed 157 yards rushing on 21 attempts in their 21-13 win on Sunday, meaning that on all carries other than Gordon's long jaunt, the hosts allowed 3.5 yards per carry.

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"Outside of that one big one," Alan Branch said, "we did a decent job . . . It's just hard to see that number and say you had a good game stopping the run even though they got a lot of it in one big chunk. But it felt pretty good at times."

More than a third (eight) of Chargers carries went for two yards or fewer as Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Jordan Richards and Cassius Marsh all came up with stuffs near or behind the line of scrimmage. 

"We knew they were going to try to come out and run the ball, especially with the conditions the way they were," David Harris said. "They have a good back over there in Melvin Gordon. They did hit us for that big run, but I think after that we settled down and relaxed and played good Patriot defense." 

"We had a group of guys," Van Noy said, "that needed to step up, including myself, and I thought we did that today."

It was Van Noy (56 snaps) who played a role that most closely resembled Hightower's. There were times when he came off the edge in run support or as a pass-rusher, leaving the middle of the field to Elandon Roberts (40 snaps after missing Week 7 with an ankle injury) and Harris (21 snaps). During others, it was Van Noy helping to set the defense. 

Whichever linebacker was in there -- Marquis Flowers (eight snaps) and Trevor Reilly (three) saw time in the defense as well -- the communication seemed to be relatively smooth. 

Was it perfect? They admitted it was not. But for their teammates up front, there wasn't a noticeable difference in that regard with Hightower out. 

"It didn't skip a beat," Deatrich Wise said. "Those guys really picked it up and communicated and continued to over-communicate on the field. High being out sucked, but there was no drop-off in the communication."

"They did well," Branch said of the 'backers behind him. "They did real well. Basically without skipping a beat, they got all the front where we needed to go. They let us know what the play was and all the checks and everything. I don't think we missed a step on that."

Where the Patriots may miss Hightower's presence most is in his big-play ability, particularly at the ends of games. It seems as though he has a knack for the key moment, as he did in Super Bowl LI, and there are few who can replicate what he can off the edge when he's healthy. 

While the Patriots only picked up one sack on the day thanks to a Philip Rivers fumble that lost the Chargers 20 yards, they did come up with some key pressures late. 

Wise got in for one hit during the game's final drive, and he pressured Rivers on two other occasions. His final push of the pocket may have helped force Rivers into a quicker throw than he would've liked. It was picked by Jonathan Jones at the goal line to end the game. 

Without both Hightower and defensive tackle Malcom Brown, the Patriots defense was able to communicate reasonably well, stop the run when it needed to, and pick up critical pressures late in the game. What's that say about Bill Belichick's defense? 

"What it says is that when people go down, it allows people to step up," Wise said. "And when they step up, good things happen. It sucks not having Maclom and High, but the people behind them had to step up and they did."

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