On the first snap of Sunday’s New England Patriots-Minnesota Vikings game, running back Dalvin Cook flared out to the right to receive a pass from quarterback Kirk Cousins. The throw was off-target, bouncing off Cook’s outstretched right hand and falling incomplete.

As the ball fell to the Gillette Stadium turf, Elandon Roberts arrived on the scene.

Roberts, who’s widely considered the hardest hitter on New England’s roster, read the swing pass, blew past a half-hearted blocking attempt by tight end Kyle Rudolph and walloped Cook with the force of a full-speed locomotive.

The hit didn’t change the outcome of the play in any way, but Roberts’ teammates fed off the jolt of energy it provided.

“Elandon Roberts set the tone for the entire game,” defensive tackle Adam Butler said after the Patriots dispatched the Vikings 24-10 in arguably their best defensive performance of the season. “I don’t know if you felt it, but I could already feel the shift from the first play. That big hit was very important. I felt good after that.”

Roberts always has been a devastating downhill tackler, doling out four or five hits of this magnitude each season. But limitations in other areas — pass coverage, decision making, etc. — have prevented the 2016 sixth-round draft pick from becoming a well-rounded middle linebacker for the Patriots.

That’s beginning to change.

In the days following Sunday’s win over Minnesota, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and linebackers coach/de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores both raved about strides Roberts has made this season.

“I think E-Rob has really grown as a player, I would say, this being his third year,” Flores said Tuesday in a conference call with reporters. “Obviously, I’ve spent a lot of time with him. This guy, he works extremely hard. I would say nobody studies more film or works harder in practice. I mean, he’s up there with anyone else on the team as far as that’s concerned.

“He’s really improved as a player in all areas — run game, pass game, how he studies. How he watches film has changed during his time here. I think he’s really done a tremendous job that way. He provides leadership for us, and he’s as tough and physical a player we have. We’re lucky to have him. He’s definitely improved a great deal over the past three years.”

Belichick noted Roberts’ improvement in diagnosing play-action and recognizing the offense’s intentions. That was evident on this play early in the Vikings game, on which Roberts cut off Cousins’ throwing lane to star receiver Adam Thielen after a fake handoff to Cook.

“Elandon’s a very aggressive run player and tackler,” Belichick said. “As he’s gained experience, he’s been able to, I’d say, process plays just a split-second quicker and recognize the differences between runs and play-actions and then having awareness of where the receivers are generally trying to get to on certain play-actions — like how the offense is trying to get the defense to react in a certain way so they can get receivers into a voided area — and he understands that.

“Once he recognizes that it’s play-action, he is working to that area where he needs to be, and he’s seeing things quickly. He had a couple real good plays on that. He and (fellow linebacker Dont’a) Hightower both had a couple real good plays on that in the game (Sunday). It doesn’t show up in the stat sheet, doesn’t look like much, but when they do that, it probably saves you 20 yards. So those are really big plays for your defensive unit to be able to eliminate if a linebacker can make that play. That’s an important play for us.

Roberts has played in all 12 games this season, starting nine and playing 43.6 percent of defensive snaps. He leads the team with six tackles for loss and paces all Patriots front-seven defenders with four pass breakups after breaking up just one total pass over his first two NFL seasons.

Thumbnail photo via Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports Images