The Patriots resurgent ground game helped lead the way to victory over the Buffalo Bills with new fullback Elandon Roberts playing a season-high in snaps and cleared the way for many of the 143 yards of rushing offense.
Last season, the power running game was a key feature that helped the Patriots to a sixth Super Bowl, with James Develin opening up important holes in critical moments. Finding and leaning into that kind of offense was a key turning point in the 2018 Patriots season, but one they couldn't continue early in 2019 as Develin and then rookie Jakob Johnson were both lost to injury.
Enter Roberts, who had been a role player on defense and special teams until desperate fullback times called for desperate fullback measures. No stranger to meeting oncoming blockers in the hole from his middle linebacker spot, the transition was as close to natural as you can get on a football field when switching sides of the ball.
"[Elandon]'s always been a good person and a guy who loves football, he loves contact and he's added a lot to our team," said offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "Certainly, was voted as a captain – I think that says a lot about who he is and how he's thought of in our locker room. He's been great, really enjoy working with him. His reaction to anything that we ask him to do has always been exactly what you'd hope it would be, which is he'll do whatever he can to help the team win."
The team first gave Roberts a look with three fullback snaps in Week 7 against the Jets. In five of the next six games, Roberts filled in with 16 more fullback snaps, before his role increased in the last two weeks, playing 10 snaps against the Bengals and then a season-high 21 against the Bills.
After abandoning two-back sets for a large chunk of the middle of the year, Saturday's victory over the Bills signaled that the fullback is back in New England.
"I think the main thing is for Elandon to be comfortable," said Bill Belichick. "A big part of that position is the flip-side of being a linebacker – it's seeing the defense, recognizing where people are, and then as you approach the line of scrimmage, adjusting your course to do your assignment. There's a lot of guys in front of you there and there's a lot of movement, and you have to be able to recognize and react to what happens after the ball is snapped."
Roberts has done everything you could ask of a captain and through 15 games this season he's played 2.8 percent of the offensive snaps, 22.1 percent of the defensive snaps and 33.6 percent of the special teams snaps.
"He's a guy that's shown tremendous versatility this year and has helped our football team in all three areas," said Belichick. "Certainly, the team's been able to benefit from his versatility, his toughness, his work ethic and his desire to contribute to help our team perform better. So, I think we all recognize that, we all appreciate it. So, we're fortunate that he's been able to do that for us."
Despite showing signs of the successful attack that carried them to a Super Bowl, Josh McDaniels shot down the notion of recreating what they did last year.
"Each game is different, so what we did the other night felt like it was maybe right to do the other night," said McDaniels. "That doesn't necessarily mean we're – we're not trying to get back to anything, we're just trying to do what we think is right for this team this year at this point in time. Whatever those things are, hopefully we're trying to improve on that bucket of things as we go."
Still, Roberts' play at fullback has noticeably improved, and in the last two weeks, the Patriots have put together two of their best rushing performances of the season. They might not lean on Roberts quite as heavily as they did Develin, but for an offense that has had their struggles it's good to know Roberts has taken to his new role and been effective.
"He's a super teammate, very unselfish," said McDanils of Roberts. "I've known Elandon since he got here, just as a guy on our team that plays on the other side that we compete against during the course of training camp and the offseason. A good guy to have on your football team, a good example for others to follow and whatever role we give him, he does the best he can in that role each week to try to help us win and have success."