FOXBOROUGH — Early this season, the linebacking corps of the Patriots drew as much criticism as any position group on the team.
The critiques? Dont’a Hightower was slow, Kyle Van Noy was in over his head, and Elandon Roberts didn’t know what he was doing.
The root of the criticism — a defense that was soft in the middle and consistently struggled to contain shifty running backs and mobile quarterbacks — was valid, but it appears the doomsday proclamations were premature. That trio seems to be peaking as New England enters the playoffs — fresh off a dominating performance against the Jets in which the linebackers played a major role in the 38-3 victory.
Hightower, a Pro Bowl selection two years ago, is a known quantity. The question was whether his body would betray him, like it had the previous two seasons. But thanks in part to changes made to his workout routine, Hightower played 15 games, his most since 2013.
He has moved between stand-up middle linebacker and playing on the edge, the increase in snaps on the outside partially responsible for his tackle numbers dropping to 48 this season. Hightower, who still is making an impact by creating space for others to make plays, said last week that he doesn’t see himself as playing a new role, just one that has been slightly altered.
“The defense runs a little bit different,’’ said Hightower, who worked on his core strength in the offseason. “We run schemes a little bit different. So, to you, it might look different. To me, it’s the same with a little twist.”
Roberts’s physicality has never been questioned, but there have been plays in the past in which he appeared to have been burned by his own aggression.
This offseason, Roberts watched a lot of film. He has tried to understand the game better from a coverage perspective, which ideally helps him understand defenses as a whole and leads to better decision-making on the field. He also has shared study sessions with safety Devin McCourty, and believes they have paid off.
“I wanted to understand, like, what do they see,” Roberts said. “He helped me out a lot.”
McCourty, a veteran safety who because of his position on the field thinks pass first, was the perfect resource for Roberts, a run-first-thinking linebacker.
“We went over everything,” Roberts said. “I was spitting out questions, spitting them out, spitting them out.”
Roberts is still making the explosive, downhill plays he’s known for — like the fourth-down stuff on Jets running back Elijah McGuire last Sunday — but he isn’t guessing. He knew the defensive alignment, and as soon as he saw a Jets guard pulling he knew where the gap would be, and shot through it.
“In that situation it was time to be aggressive,” Roberts said. “It was fourth-and-1, short yardage. It’s time to go. Maybe a little bit longer, fourth-and-2, 3, my whole mind-set would start changing.”
It’s still a balance. Roberts, in his third year with the Patriots, said he still regrets some decisions he makes on the field.
“I’m getting older, knowing when and when not to,” Roberts said. “Hey, it ain’t perfect. But just working hard, from year one to now, just working hard.”
Van Noy still seems to be haunted by the question that followed him to New England when he was acquired from the Detroit Lions in October 2016: How is a player who struggled to get on the field for the Lions going to be a defensive mainstay for the Patriots?
That’s what Van Noy has become, though. He played in 90.7 percent of the defensive snaps this season and led the Patriots with 92 tackles. He was third in tackles for loss (5) and fifth in quarterback hits (10).
“It didn’t take long for us to really count on him to make plays and do tough tasks week in and week out,” McCourty said of Van Noy last month.
Van Noy also has become an emotional leader for the Patriots, rushing to Bill Belichick’s defense during the coach’s sideline spat with receiver Adam Thielen in the Vikings game, and exuberantly celebrating his 46-yard rumble for a touchdown off a third-quarter fumble recovery last week against the Jets. That’s due in part to his loyalty to a team he believes saved his career.
“I think he’s a guy who probably felt a little outcast in Detroit, he probably wanted to play more and it didn’t happen or whatever,” McCourty said. “He got here with a chip on his shoulder and I think it’s stayed that way.”