Patriots

Patriots

FOXBORO -- It hasn't always been easy. Elandon Roberts would call it "sacrifice" to take some of his focus off the position he's known his entire football-playing life to play on the opposite side of the ball, blocking the same defenders with whom he shares a mindset.

Linebacker has been Roberts' professional identity since he was drafted by the Patriots in the sixth round in 2016. It was the identity he embraced at the University of Houston, that made him the country's leading tackler as a senior. 

But this season he's found himself in key spots looking to create space for running backs, not blow them up. He played a season-high 21 offensive snaps as a fullback in Saturday's 24-17 win over the Bills. He was on the field to make the lead block that helped spring Rex Burkhead for his fourth-quarter, go-ahead touchdown to give the Patriots their 11th straight AFC East championship.

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But as good as he looked at times helping the Patriots rack up 143 yards rushing on 35 carries against the No. 2 defense in football, Roberts doesn't consider himself a fullback. He doesn't want to be considered a fullback. 

He wants to be considered the type of teammate who will do what's required to win. 

"To be honest with you, to win championships sometimes comes sacrifice," he explained. "You know what I'm saying? When you're put in a certain position, you look to the left, and you look to the right. Everybody in that huddle is trying to get it done. When it comes down to embracing it, the guys in the locker room, we come and grind every day, and as a captain, it's my duty to go out there and give them guys 100 percent like I'm at the linebacker position. That's what I do. 

 

"Am I a fullback now? No. Am I 100 percent a linebacker? Yes. But when them guys need me on that offensive side because of the circumstances that we have this year, I'm gonna go out there and give 100 percent just like I'm on the defense."

The Patriots have needed someone in the role Roberts has filled for 50 plays this season. 

They lost James Develin to a neck injury earlier this year that landed him on injured reserve. The player about whom Bill Belichick said provided the 2018 Super Bowl winners the toughness they needed was quickly removed from the equation. Backup fullback Jakob Johnson filled in nicely for a brief period, but he landed on season-ending IR with a shoulder injury. 

"That was a big part of our offense and E-Rob has stepped up tremendously," center Ted Karras said. "It's been really fun to have him in the huddle. He's one of the hardest hitters I've ever had to block so I'm sure defenses aren't really thrilled coming up and meeting him in the hole."

The Patriots tried to get by at times with a tight end playing in a fullback role, but it didn't go well. They tried to run the football out of lighter sets and struggled. Very little was working. They were among the NFL's basement-dwellers when it came to running-game efficiency for most of the year. 

But in Philadelphia, back in Week 11, the Patriots might've caught a glimpse of what Roberts could do for them at fullback. He'd played four fullback snaps on the season previous to that game, and he saw seven snaps in a tight win over the Eagles. Belichick liked what he saw from Roberts well enough that he featured a late-game block by Roberts on safety Malcolm Jenkins in his Plays of the Week on Patriots.com. Still, after that game, Roberts wasn't at the point where he was embracing questions about playing on the offensive side.

"If you want to talk about offense," Roberts told a reporter, "you better ask Josh McDaniels."

Weeks later, on NBC Sports Boston's Patriots Wednesday, he was asked if he enjoys playing fullback. 

"I like defense," he said matter-of-factly. 

But after winning Saturday, with a new hat and t-shirt to commemorate what he helped his team accomplish, he was more open to discussing how he's handled his changing role. It has something to do with the fact that he's a first-year captain.

"Like I told y'all when they voted me captain, sometimes you don't even notice, it just comes natural to you," Roberts said. "I didn't change nothing. When it gets to the nitty gritty of the season and you're out there and you're competing for championships, there's a lot of stuff you put to the side and say let's go [expletive] win the game. That's all it is. 

 

"If your next question is going to be, do I like playing the fullback position? I like winning championships. Whatever my team needs me to do to win, it is what it is. But I'm 100 percent a linebacker."

Winning the division, while not the extent of his team's goals, helped make the added offensive work -- the practice time, the meetings -- worth it, Roberts explained.

"Yeah," he said. "When you come into the season, that's what you play for. Championships. Earlier in the season, it'd be too early to talk about championships. But this week we knew it was a hat and t-shirt game. All the players you depend on, all your best players, whether you're in your position or not, if you can step up in another position and help your team win a championship, it's worth it."

"He's a captain," said guard Shaq Mason. "He's a captain for a reason. He's a leader. We needed him. He embraced it for sure. I don't think it was hard for him to embrace it at all. He loves hitting, you know what I'm saying?"

Roberts certainly has the mindset for it. Asked for his thoughts ahead of the play when he cleared some space for Burkhead to score the game-winner, he was straightforward. 

"To be honest," he said, "on every play I just be like, 'Whoever step in my way, I'm gonna run through they [expletive] face. Just like linebacker. At linebacker, if you pull, if you're a pulling guard, I'm looking to make the tackle but if I can't make the tackle and you're in my way, I'm gonna run through your [expletive] face. Same on offense. When a linebacker step up in that hole, I'm gonna run through they're [expletive] face. Period. That's all I think about. Making my block, and running through a [expletive] face."

He did that Saturday, and ended up with a [expletive] t-shirt as a result. Though he's, as he says, "100 percent a linebacker," and though he wasn't willing to field offensive questions just a few weeks ago, there's some pride in what he has helped his team achieve on that side of the ball. 

In the locker room after the win, before reporters entered, he posed for a hat-and-t-shirt photo with Patriots offensive linemen. He wasn't quite one of them. But he was happy to savor their shared achievement.