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Saints program cover story: Craig Robertson

Steady play of linebacker has played a key role in defense's success

A new addition to the family of New Orleans Saints linebacker Craig Robertson this offseason, he and his wife's second child, resulted in a change in routine.

However, while Robertson can sit back and take pride at being a husband, father, respected team captain and starting outside linebacker for the 8-3 Saints leading into today's contest against Carolina to break a first-place tie in the NFC South, he will never forget how hard he has had to work to get to where he is. If the Saints are to keep ascending, he need only look at a fellow Texan and father of four on the other side of the ball, Drew Brees, to the see the combination of balance, preparation and competitiveness necessary to keep the defense on that path.

"I'm playing on a team with the 'Greatest of All-Time'," Robertson said. "Watching him prepare and practice and do the same thing every day, it makes you not become complacent during a long season. Watching a guy like that makes me better as a competitor. I always remember do your same routine and keep things on time like him."

The 6-foot-1, 234-pound Robertson was a four-year letterman at North Texas from 2007-10, where he appeared in 48 games and totaled 382 tackles, 3.5 sacks and nine interceptions. He enjoyed a standout senior season in 2010, when he recorded 133 stops, two sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 12 games for the Mean Green.

Robertson was departing North Texas at a difficult time in the NFL landscape in the spring of 2011. With the lack of a labor agreement between the league and its players, while there was an NFL Draft, for players such as Robertson who did not have their name called, they were not able to sign with clubs as free agents until the start of training camp, as opposed to the typical cycle, one to two days after the draft.

So in the summer of 2011, while waiting for the call from a team, Robertson worked multiple jobs, putting to use his bachelor's and master's degrees, working as a corporate health and wellness coach as well as playing Australian Rules Football for the Dallas Magpies. Robertson's team won a national championship for their division and he was a quick study.

"The game was fun, it was different," Robertson said. "I played all sports my whole life. I wasn't playing football at the time and it was intriguing to me because it was new. Everybody was for it, my girlfriend (now my wife) was sitting in a lawn chair at games and practices supporting me in a game she knew nothing about."

Robertson was so successful at the game that he had a tough decision to make. He had an offer in hand to travel down under to play the sport professionally in the continent where it was most popular. However, he still held out hope for an American football career and before accepting the offer, he received one to join the Cleveland Browns practice squad at the end of the 2011 season.

After a full offseason at the Browns practice facility, Robertson quickly showed that he belonged in the NFL. After earning a roster spot in the 2012 preseason, he made an immediate impact when he picked off Eagles QB Michael Vick in his NFL debut in the season opener. While being a stalwart on special teams, despite multiple front office and coaching staff changes, Robertson impressed himself upon each group, earning and keeping a spot in their starting lineup.

After a final season in Cleveland in 2015 that saw Robertson miss four games with an ankle injury and post 50 tackles, the lowest of his career, he became a free agent. Looking at the landscape and seeing a team on the rise close to his hometown of Stafford, Texas and home base in the Dallas suburbs, Robertson signed a three-year contract with the Black and Gold.

His decision paid off, as he started all 15 games he played in at both outside and middle linebacker in 2016, leading the Saints with a career-high 131 tackles, also chipping in one sack, one interception, five passes defensed and two fumble recoveries. Despite shining personally, one of the biggest contributions Robertson made was injecting a positive attitude to his position group despite the overall unit struggling on defense.

"I just try to enjoy every day like it's my last," Robertson said. "God puts everything in front of you for a reason. I enjoy it and try to smile more than anyone in any building I'm ever in because I'm so happy to be part of the NFL. I never lose that dream and ambition. I always try to humble myself and put myself in the realm of how special it is."

As part of this, Robertson continued to show patience and a positive attitude even in an offseason and training camp when his role was shifted to a more complementary role. Accepting whatever came, but competing for everything, Robertson was voted as a team captain by his teammates as a sign of how much they respect him.

This positivity would be needed when the Saints defense hit several rough patches during a 0-2 start. Following a week three win at Carolina, Robertson re-entered the lineup at the weakside when Alex Anzalone suffered a shoulder injury at the start of a 20-0 shutout of Miami in London on Oct. 1.

Since the defense's early struggles, Robertson's steady play and strong work ethic has contributed to a unit that notched eight straight wins, while experiencing improvement in virtually every category from 2016. He has recorded 45 tackles (29 solo), leads the linebacker corps with two sacks and has also filled the stat sheet with one pass defensed, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and three special teams stops.

"The vibe right now is awesome," Robertsonsaid. "It's always good to reap the benefits of what guys have put in since training camp, but the whole thing is trying to get better and better every week and not getting complacent."

At 8-3, this Saints team is the first time that Robertson is guaranteed that his team won't finish with a losing campaign during his time in both the college and professional ranks. But especially after dropping a 26-20 decision to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday and being part of an NFC race with eight teams with a winning record and only six available playoff spots, he knows there is much work left to go.

"It has felt real good to win this year," Robertson said. "It's hard to win in this league. Even in Cleveland we had a lot of great players, we just didn't have the wins to come along with it. It's an awesome feeling to come in the day after a win with guys having smiles on their face and getting ready for the next week. It's a great feeling. We aren't done yet. We have to come back this week. I want to play in playoff games. Having a guy like Drew (Brees) and some of the guys they have, I think this is the place to accomplish this feat for my career finally."

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