The makeover of the inside linebacker room for the Pittsburgh Steelers is nearly complete after a pair of moves Thursday, including the agreement with veteran linebacker Elandon Roberts on a two-year deal and the release of Myles Jack.
With Roberts, the Steelers finally get their hands on a guy that they had interest in dating back to the 2016 NFL Draft. When Roberts was coming out of Houston, he had a private workout with the Steelers during the pre-draft process.
His signing comes at a position where the Steelers need a ton of help and are throwing a bunch of resources at it.
Gone are Jack, Devin Bush, Robert Spillane, and Marcus Allen, along with former position coach Jerry Olsavsky and senior defensive assistant/LB coach Brian Flores, who left to take the Minnesota Vikings’ defensive coordinator position. Along with bringing in Roberts, the Steelers inked Cole Holcomb to a three-year deal, giving them two experienced veterans in the room, and will undoubtedly draft a linebacker high in April’s 2023 NFL Draft.
With all of that said, what are the Steelers getting in Roberts at this point in his career?
Glad you asked.
The short, simple answer is a true BUCK linebacker, a downhill thumper that is an impactful run defender as well as a disruptive blitzer. He’s an absolute zero in pass coverage though, consistently coming off the field in sub packages and obvious passing situations. This allows him to focus on his strengths, which is playing the run, flying around and being a physical, edgy player.
Let’s take a look at his struggles first.
Roberts is mostly a mess in pass coverage. That was the case coming out of Houston in 2016, and that’s remained the case with the veteran linebacker during stints in New England and Miami.
According to Pro Football Reference, Roberts has allowed 87 receptions (113 targets) for 941 yards and six touchdowns in his six-year career. Quarterbacks have a rating of 108.8 when targeting him.
Those numbers aren’t great to look at, truthfully.
On tape, Roberts is a guy who looks extremely uncomfortable and unsure of himself when spot dropping, which should really be one of the easier things for a linebacker to do in coverage. Gain depth, try to get in passing lanes and defend space.
Roberts is just entirely unsure of himself and too often gets caught in between gaining depth and simply stopping his drop. He can be moved far too easily by quarterbacks’ eyes, which opens up windows behind him.
Watch Roberts here in the middle. The footwork in his drop is clunky and he just doesn’t look sure of himself. Obviously he has to worry about Chicago’s Justin Fields scrambling, but he needs to get better depth in his drop here and try to get into that window. He has to have much better spatial awareness in these situations too.
There just isn’t a feel from Roberts in spot drops. That’s a bit concerning because he’s going to have to do that at times in Pittsburgh. He’s not going to be able to come off the field every single time an opponent throws.
Good news is he did flash the ability to carry the seam in the same game against the Bears.
This is a very good rep in coverage against Chicago tight end Cole Kmet.
Roberts does a good job of staying patient and not opening up his hips too early against Kmet. Once he does he’s able to stay in phase in the hip pocket. That shrinks the throwing lane for Fields over the top, making it that much more difficult and leading to the incompletion.
I didn’t see this a ton of film from Roberts, but he also wasn’t asked to do it very often.
Chances are in Pittsburgh Roberts won’t be asked to play man coverage or carry the seam all that often. There’s a clear strength to his game and an obvious weakness, that being pass coverage. It’ll be up to the coaching staff to put Roberts in the best position to succeed.
It’s clear what position that is.
Finally, the Steelers have a true, smash mouth BUCK for their 3-4 defense.
Roberts is a physical, downhill force who consistently makes plays in the run game. A stat that Steelers Depot’s own Alex Kozora unearthed Thursday regarding Roberts compared to the trio of departed Steelers linebackers was rather telling:
Tackles for loss, 2022:
Elandon Roberts: 10
Robert Spillane, Myles Jack, and Devin Bush combined: 9
Roberts loves to take on blocks, hit people in the mouth and make plays. He processes well and is constantly around the football. That’s very encouraging.
It was pretty interesting that teams tried to block Roberts with a tight end often in the run game last season. That’s a matchup Roberts is going to dominate time and time again. Check out this rep against the Minnesota Vikings last season.
Good job of reading his keys, triggering downhill and exploding into the Vikings’ tight end attempting to seal him off. He clogs up the rush lane and ends up shedding the block to make the plainer the line of scrimmage.
Similar play here.
Really good at reading his keys, finding the blocker quickly to take him on in the hole, and then is around the football to make the play again. We didn’t see that often from Steelers linebackers last season. It’s rather encouraging this type of play showed up constantly on Roberts’ film.
Chicago tried something similar against Roberts.
It went about as well as one would expect after the first two clips with a tight end attempting to block him in the run game.
He’s very good at taking a blocker on square to the line of scrimmage, taking the contact to them and winning quickly to make a play. That’s going to be huge to a rebuilt linebacker room in Pittsburgh.
Processing in the run game is a real strength for Roberts. At times he can be fooled by misdirection, motion and other tricks offenses try to throw at defenders. But for the large majority of the time, Roberts is triggering quickly, running to the football to get in on the play.
I really liked this rep from him against the Bears last season. He reads run quickly and beats the Bears center to the spot to make the play. Having that ability to process quickly and beat a blocker to the spot is great to see. Not getting blocked and making a play is better than shedding a block to make a play, in my opinion.
The one thing I wanted to see in Roberts’ game was his range against the run.
Safe to say it’s more than adequate.
That’s a play from the far hash to the far sideline to make the stop on Green Bay’s Aaron Jones. The end zone view shows just how quickly Roberts reads the toss play and is able to beat the Green Bay center to the edge, avoiding the block to make a play.
Similar play here against the Packers on the jet sweep to speedster Christian Watson.
Roberts reads it immediately and flies to the boundary to get in on the stop for no gain. I’ve had some people push back on this being a good play from Roberts because he was unblocked. But I care more about the range and the ability to take a good angle to make a stop in these situations.
He’s a sideline-to-sideline player against the run, full stop.
Roberts is going to have an impact as a blitzer for the Steelers, too.
He recorded 4.5 sacks last season and was constantly in the opponent’s backfield.
Here against Aaron Rodgers, he does a tremendous job of reading the play and triggering downhill, closing in quickly on Rodgers for the sack.
Roberts fires downhill on the play-action bootleg before Rodgers even has his head around to look for a receiver, allowing him to close that ground between him and the quarterback. He does a great job of coming in under control, too, not letting Rodgers sidestep him to avoid the sack. Roberts made plays in the red zone against the Packers in that Week 16 matchup.
Roberts is a guy I’ve had my eye on for awhile when it comes to a fit with Pittsburgh.
He’s the ideal BUCK, a guy with very similar measureables, testing numbers and play style to former Steelers starter Vince Williams. He’s going to bring a significant physical element to a Steelers defense that has largely been missing at the off-ball position in recent years.
Roberts is a two-time Super Bowl champion, has a ton of playoff experience, was a team captain in Miami and in New England, and will provide some special teams value, too. This was a very solid signing for the Steelers, at least based on my opinion before and after watching the film.