Facing a 1st and goal from the 1-yard line during their Monday night game against the New York Jets, the New England Patriots brought a rather standard-looking goal-line package onto to the field: a running back and a fullback lining up in the i-formation behind quarterback Tom Brady, with two tight ends and an eligible tackle as added blockers along the offensive line. However, the personnel group was anything from ordinary.
After all, the fullback spot was filled by no other than Elandon Roberts — a linebacker that had not played even a single offensive snaps during his first 59 regular season and playoff games with the Patriots. Against the Jets and with regular fullback James Develin and his backup Jakob Johnson both on injured reserve, however, the team turned to the fourth-year man to help fill the void at the lead-blocking role in short-yardage situations.
“I guess Coach was confident in putting me at the position, confident that I could go out there and help them out. So I took on that role, that extra role for the team. Whatever they need from me,” the 25-year-old said after the Patriots’ 33-0 victory. All in all, Roberts played three offensive snaps during the game in New York, with two coming on that second quarter series and his final one on a 1-yard touchdown run by Sony Michel in the fourth.
Defenders seeing action on offense is nothing new in New England, of course, which is why Roberts’ usage as a part-time fullback evokes memories of past franchise greats. Linebacker Mike Vrabel, for exaple, was famously used as a short-yardage tight end and finished his career with 12 receptions — all of which touchdowns. Defensive tackle Richard Seymour, meanwhile, also saw part-time action at the fullback position early on in his Patriot tenure.
Using players outside their usual comfort zone was never limited to defenders playing on offense, however. The Patriots also had wide receivers Troy Brown, Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater play cornerback at various points over the past two decades, and even threw a touchdown pass to an eligible tackle Nate Solder during the 2014 AFC Championship Game versus the Indianapolis Colts. Roberts is in good company, therefore.
The former sixth-round draft pick himself, meanwhile, was well prepared to enter the game as a blocker: he practiced at the position all week on top of his usual work with the linebackers and on special teams — he played 17 defensive snaps and 10 in the kicking game against the Jets — and also was used at fullback during his rookie year, even though he never actually was inserted into a game on offense until Monday night.
“It’s been a while. I’m Texas football. We don’t go both ways out there,” said Roberts after the game when saying that he did not play offense in an actual game-setting since his high school days in Port Arthur, Texas. His approach, however, remains the same: “Me on the defensive side, fullbacks are just kind of in my way, so I’m going to go through you. And when I’m at the fullback, I’m going to still go through you. However you want to have it.”