Playing linebacker in the NFL during this current modern era of the 21st century is much different now than it was back in the "old days". Today's NFL Linebackers in 2018 are smaller, more athletic, middle-of-the-field defenders and often weigh no more than 220 pounds. But every now and then, you'll find a player who's a "throwback" to a time in the League when the sport was played by very tough men. 8th year-veteran New Orleans Saints linebacker Craig Robertson is one of them.
As Sports Illustrated NFL writer Andy Benoit noted a few months back: Robertson is one of those players who keeps finding his way onto the field.
Undrafted in 2011 out of North Texas University, Robertson spent his first NFL season on Cleveland’s practice squad before getting a chance to become a situational backup and special teamer in 2012.
He started three games for the Browns in 2012 and then 61 of his next 73 games, including 27 of 31 since signing with the Saints in 2016 NFL Free Agency.
Initially a safety in college, Benoit describes Robertson as a "finesse" linebacker with speed, though he’d never be confused for Deion Jones of the Falcons or Telvin Smith of the Jaguars.
Benoit says that guys like Robertson must play faster than their athleticism. That demands an aptitude for diagnosing plays. We think of this as reading and reacting, but for a linebacker, much of the game takes place before the snap, at the line of scrimmage.
While Benoit's observation is undoubtedly poignant and spot-on, there's an aspect of Robertson's playing style that clearly stands out, which is his passion and relentless pursuit of ball-carriers with a purposeful intent of making sure the play has been successfully brought to a halt — and sometimes violently if necessary.
Believe me when I tell you: Robertson "brings it" on every single play he's a part of.
Or as an old sports writer now in his early 50's like me would prefer to describe it: "crashing and smashing them", Throwback-style.
Given that description, you'd have to think that Robertson would see plenty of playing time with the current Saints linebacker corps, especially with the recent release of fellow veteran Nate Stupar, who now is with the New York Giants.
But last week in the Saints' horribly disappointing Season Opening 48-40 loss to the NFC South Division rival Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Robertson saw a total of ZERO SNAPS at linebacker.
That's right: not a single snap at any 3 of the LB positions that he's capable of playing, although he did serve as one of the team's designated captains on the field; and did see action with a total of 29 snaps on Special Teams, which tied him for the most in that department with Taysom Hill of all people.
But why was Robertson not given more snaps at linebacker?
Some fans as well as notable observers of the team such as WWLTV.com's Ralph Malbrough were wondering the very same thing, after last Sunday's embarrassing performance by the Saints defense as a whole.
Craig Robertson needs to be playing for Saints. He brings energy, is best blitzing LB they have, and makes plays. I’ll live with his other limitations.
— Ralph Malbrough (@SaintsForecast) September 10, 2018
I thought the same thing. If I printed Craig Robertson's six years of statistics and blindly showed the league, everyone would want that player and be surprised at the name. He's shown an affinity for the ball.
— ScoutWithoutClout (@manofGod8888) September 10, 2018
Defense was putrid, man. DL got no push, LBs were all over the place and DBs weren't communicating. Did Vaccaro play that big of a role as a leader? I want to see more Craig Robertson & less AJ Klein.
— Aziz Khalil (@azizk47) September 10, 2018
Now in complete fairness to the Saints defensive coaching staff and particularly defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and linebackers coach Mike Nolan, the play of the LB corps was just one of many issues that the defense faced last week for a unit that seemingly came out very flat, and looked NOTHING like the defense that helped New Orleans rebound from 3 straight (7-9) losing seasons from 2014-2016, to an (11-5) record and the 2017 NFC South Division Championship.
Certainly there were some things that were beyond their control, such as the brilliant game-plan comprised by Buccaneers head coach Dick Koetter and offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who took over the Tampa offensive play-calling just days before the game was played.
But ZERO snaps at LB for a player like Robertson, whose "motor" is running full-blast for 60 minutes each and every Sunday (or a Monday or Thursday Night)?
The week prior in the Saints' final Pre-Season win against the Los Angeles Rams, Robertson seemed like he was everywhere, making plays in every phase of the game according to New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill.
As Underhill observed:
New Orleans appears determined to use other players at linebacker this season, just like every other season Robertson has been here, but he always finds a way on the field and has been a very valuable addition to the defense.
So once again, we ask: if Robertson is so damn valuable to the Saints at linebacker, then WHY was he regulated to Special Teams snaps only?
Only the coaches have that answer, and they haven't said anything as of yet.
However, one would suspect that Robertson should see more action tomorrow afternoon inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome when the Saints host Robertson's former team the Cleveland Browns, in a now suddenly critically important game for New Orleans this early in the season already.
With a much tougher schedule this season than last season, an (0-2) start might not be "as easy" for the Saints defense to overcome, as they did last year.
Last week against Tampa, the Saints started linebackers Demario Davis (66 snaps) at weakside, Manti Te’o (27 snaps) at middle and A.J. Klein (25 snaps) on the strongside. Robertson was listed as the back-up on the weakside (even though he never played) with Alex Anzalone (34 snaps) backing up both the middle and strongside positions.
However as I noted a few days ago in the article detailing why the Saints should simply allow the "Best 11" players on defense to be their designated starters, most observers feel that the "best" possible starting line-up ought to be Anzalone starting at weakside (the weakside or "Will" LB is also usually your fastest LB, which Anzalone is); with Demario Davis in the middle and either Te’o or Robertson rotating at strongside when needed.
Now grant it: Allen is completely enamored with utilizing 3-safety sets, which in turn of course means that the Saints will run a lot of plays only featuring a weakside and middle linebacker.
So technically, the ideal lineup would be a lot of Anzalone and Davis, which was the case last Sunday.
But without turning this article into an "AJ Klein hate-fest", the Saints 6th year veteran whom the team signed to a 3-year, $15 million deal last year in 2017 NFL Free Agency, has turned out to be a bit of a "mixed bag" for the defensive unit.
While Klein certainly can play on the strong side well enough to be a starter, he also seemingly has struggled at times both defending the run and in pass coverage in recent months; and one can't help but wonder if starting Robertson at that spot instead could or would be the better option.
Though Robertson seems to excel more in the middle / "Mike" LB spot, he can still play the strongside well enough to merit a starting role.
Obviously the coaches have their own reasoning for keeping Robertson regulated to Special Teams only, but perhaps that will change tomorrow.
For a Saints defense that needs a strong performance tomorrow to get themselves 'back on track', putting Robertson out there whenever possible — especially since he'll likely be very motivated and fired up about facing his old team that he broke into the League with, in a game that actually counts — would seem to be a pretty good idea.