Down two starting linebackers and key communicators in Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander, the Pittsburgh Steelers were facing a bit of an uphill battle at the position entering Week 11 against the Cleveland Browns.
Veteran inside linebacker Elandon Roberts, signed in free agency in the offseason, made that battle a little easier for the rest of the season. Roberts, wearing the green dot as the primary communicator for the Steelers’ defense Sunday, played all 75 snaps against the Browns. He finished with a career-high 15 tackles, breaking his previous career high by four.
Though the performance came in a 13-10 loss that saw the Browns’ offense, led by rookie quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, drive right down the field for the game-winning field goal, Roberts was arguably the Steelers’ best defender on the day. He made plays sideline to sideline while handing himself well overall in coverage.
On the day, Roberts graded out at a 71.1 overall from Pro Football Focus, including a 44.3 against the run and an 83.3 in coverage. He had two tackles for loss but was charged with 11 receptions on 14 targets for just 49 yards though the targets and receptions seem inflated.
That’s what the film is there for though. Let’s take a look at Roberts’ day against the Browns.
Roberts’ processing abilities were rather noticeable on Sunday.
Early in the game the Browns tried to catch the Steelers’ defense off guard in the screen game.
Roberts reads this screen rather quickly and is firing downhill to get outside of the blockers, turning the running back inside towards help. It might not go down in the stats sheet as a tackle, but it’s a very good play from Roberts. He processes quickly and is on the move. That comes from film study and knowing tendencies.
His physicality showed up in a big way, rather quickly, too.
This is how to fill a gap against the run.
Roberts again reads his keys, sees the hole and fires downhill, meeting pulling guard Joel Bitonio head on in the hole. He blows up Bitonio, shutting the run down right then and there.
This type of play is consistent from Roberts. This is who he is at the position. Tough as nails, fires downhill with force and dishes out punishment.
Nice play here from Roberts, too, against the run, showing off his range and ability to fight through blocks.
Look at how quickly Roberts processes and then clicks and closes.
He does a great job of getting across the formation to take on the guard trying to get to the second level. Once there, Roberts does a nice job of working across Bitonio’s face, getting his head into the hole and eventually getting in on the run stop, limiting the Browns to a short gain.
Processing. It shows up time and time again on tape against the Browns.
Roberts reads this tight end screen to David Njoku very quickly, pairing with outside linebacker Alex Highsmith to blow it up.
This play never had a chance to develop thanks to Highsmith and Roberts. The latter comes downhill to close on Njoku in the screen before the offensive line even has a chance to get into space.
In the run game, even with Roberts grading poorly from PFF, I liked what I saw.
This was one of my favorite reps from Roberts Sunday afternoon. He does a good job of attacking inside on the blocking wide receiver, staying square to the line of scrimmage and then getting off the block and making the stick in the hole, taking away the cutback lane.
Never a great idea to ask a receiver to block a linebacker, especially backside. Roberts made the Browns pay for it.
After that play, Roberts really turned it on late.
Cleveland tried to test Roberts a few times in space in the passing game.
Every time, Roberts was up to the task.
This was a tone-setting play on Kareem Hunt on a swing pass out of the backfield. Roberts tracked it the whole way, closed ground with great speed and took a great angle to the ball. He laid a sound hit on Hunt in space for the big tackle for loss, putting Cleveland behind the chains.
Cleveland tried it again a few drives later, this time forcing Roberts to work through traffic.
No problem for the veteran linebacker.
Again, a significant stop in space and a tackle for loss to boot from Roberts, pinning Cleveland back near its own 10-yard line.
He showed good range and speed in space. Plus, he was a great tackler in space. That’s a huge point that is overlooked, too.
The PFF numbers might not agree entirely, but Roberts had his best game as a Steeler Sunday. He took on a full-time role, still handled special teams duties, played every snap defensively and handled the green dot responsibilities.
Add in the fact he was impactful throughout the game from a play-making standpoint and Roberts showed that the Steelers should lean on him more moving forward as “the guy” at inside linebacker — and that being short-handed at inside linebacker without Holcomb and Alexander might not be the big of a deal it was expected to be.