As we’ll do every week to get you ready for the upcoming game, our X-Factor of the week. Sometimes, it’s a player, unit, concept, or scheme. Here’s our X-Factor for Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns.
X-FACTOR: LB Elandon Roberts
The X-Factor for this weekend’s game could’ve gone in a lot of directions. It doesn’t feel like there’s a wrong answer. But I’m landing on Roberts, key in the middle of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense and the last man standing of the team’s original “big three” at inside linebacker. Cole Holcomb? Knee injury, out for the year. Kwon Alexander? Second torn Achilles of his career, also done for the year.
Roberts is what’s left. His game is well-defined. Aggressive, downhill, physical, a true run-and-hit type of dude. And he’s served that role well. Call him a tone-setter for the defense, like blowing up this Green Bay Packer’s puller on the first run of last week, and tackling RB Aaron Jones for a loss.
That’ll be an asset against the Browns, digging even deeper into a run-heavy approach now that Deshaun Watson is out for the season. That’s not as much of a concern, though Roberts can be too aggressive and prone to taking the cheese on playfakes.
Of course, the concern with Roberts is working in space. Covering horizontally. And the Browns, even with a rookie, are likely to come out in heavy personnel with two or three tight ends and spread the field in an empty formation, playing the matchup game and picking on guys like Roberts with TE David Njoku. On third and long, will Roberts stay in dime packages? Though he doesn’t have a pass-down skillset, his communication will likely win out this week, the team caring about everyone being on the same page rather than a slightly faster linebacker on the field. But it means he’ll be put in challenging situations to play in space and there’s no doubt the Browns are aware of the Steelers’ problem.
There’s plenty on Roberts’ shoulders this week. He has to be fierce against the run. Pittsburgh’s goal, like Cleveland’s, is to make the quarterback beat you. So that’s where it starts. But he has to be strong pre-snap with all the formations and shifts the Browns could present. As Cam Heyward said on the sidelines last weekend, they have to overcommunicate and not assume that everyone just knows what’s going on. And he’s going to have to not be a liability in the passing game and get cooked by Njoku. It’s asking more than he was brought to do. But the team doesn’t have any other choice. Roberts is who is left. Now he has to get it done.