Entering the 2018 offseason, few positions on the New England Patriots’ roster created as many questions as the linebacker spot. Dont’a Hightower was coming off a major injury, while the rest of the group struggled for most of the previous season. However, the Patriots did not invest during free agency (quite the opposite as it also released Shea McClellin) and also waited until the third day of the draft to pick a pair of players at the position.
The rookies only had a limited impact, though. By late September, both fifth-round selection Ja’Whaun Bentley — who looked solid before injuring his biceps in week three — and sixth-round pick Christian Sam were on injured reserve with season-ending injuries. For New England, this meant a return to the core group it had fielded at linebacker for most of the last two years: Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts.
The group started the year inconsistently but slowly and steadily improved, just like the Patriots’ defense as a whole did. Along the way, each of the trio’s individual members improved as well as. During recent conference calls and press conferences, head coach Bill Belichick acknowledged the qualities of Hightower, Van Noy and Roberts and how each one of them impacts New England’s defense.
“High always does a good job,” Belichick said about Hightower, who appeared in eleven games this season and serves as the team’s number two at the linebacker position when it comes to playing time. “He’s a very, very smart player. He’s a very instinctive player. He has good anticipation, good awareness, he knows what the strength and weaknesses of each defensive call is and then he can pretty quickly assess that based on the offensive formation, personnel and what happens after the ball is snapped.”
Belichick then went on to praise 28-year old, who usually serves as New England’s defensive on-field signal caller, for his role when it comes to the group’s communication. “Anytime High is on the field, our communication, certainly at his position and with the people that he works with, is always good, whether that’s in pass rush or pass coverage or formation adjustments and checks and so forth,” Belichick said.
“It doesn’t matter if he’s on the end of the line or off the line or up in the line in pass rush situations, but his communication and experience and overall instinctiveness as a football player and in our system is extremely valuable,” the head coach continued. Hightower, who is the Patriots’ third-most expensive defender at a salary cap of $8.35 million this season, struggled early in the year but has since grown back into his old reliable self.
What certainly helped the veteran return to form is the quality of players around him as both Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts have successfully manned the linebacker spot alongside the former team captain. Last year, when Hightower was out for most of the season with a torn pectoral injury, the duo had to hold down the fort at the position but was oftentimes unable to make much of an impact. This year is different.
“Kyle’s been great,” Belichick said about Van Noy and what he brings to the proverbial table. “He’s got a lot of good skills. He’s got good size, can run, is physical, can tackle, pretty good in pass defense, pretty good blitzer, does a lot of things well, a smart player that handles a lot of different jobs for us and versatility. He’s a pleasure to have on our team and to coach. [...] He’s always ready to go, well prepared, works hard, wants to understand the information that we give him and can process it and execute it.”
The 27-year old, who is third on the Patriots with a playing time share of 88.9%, impacts New England’s defense beyond his technical abilities and off-field contributions. “Kyle’s done a lot of different things for us and he’s done them well,” Belichick said. “He’s certainly one of our more versatile players, so when you put together different schemes, having somebody like that that can adjust and execute those things... Kyle’s a good guy to have.”
While both Hightower and Van Noy are established veterans who performed consistently at a high level in the past, Elandon Roberts was more of a hit-or-miss type of player before this year came around. The former sixth-round draft pick often overshoot gaps in the running game over his first two seasons in the NFL, had weaknesses when dropping back into coverage, and was slow to read and react to plays.
In 2018 and with Brian Flores leading the defense instead of Matt Patricia, Roberts has become more consistent as a player — something Belichick also recognized. “As he’s gained experience, he’s been able to, I’d say, process plays just a split-second quicker and recognize the differences between runs and play-actions and then having awareness of where the receivers are generally trying to get to on certain play-actions,” Belichick said about the 24-year old.
“Once he recognizes that it’s play-action, he is working to that area where he needs to be and he’s seeing things quickly and had a couple real good plays on that,” the head coach continued. “He and Hightower both had a couple real good plays on that in the game [against the Minnesota Vikings]. It doesn’t show up in the stat sheet, doesn’t look like much, but when they do that, it probably saves you 20 yards [...].”
What also stands out about Roberts, as Belichick acknowledged, is his intensity. “Elandon’s a very aggressive run player and tackler,” he said about the third-year man. Aggressiveness can set the tone for the entire defense, and on Sunday against the Vikings it certainly did: Minnesota’s first play form scrimmage saw Kirk Cousins fire an incomplete pass to running back Dalvin Cook, who was immediately leveled by Roberts after failing to come up with the football.
Like Belichick said: not all plays show up on the stat sheet — and the Patriots’ linebackers have been making them at a higher rate over the last few weeks. The group has therefore certainly played a big role in New England’s defense turning things around after an inconsistent first few weeks of the season. And if their growth continues, so should the success of the unit as a whole.