NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
The 2008 NFL draft saw New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli invest in seven college prospects. The list included Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo, Colorado cornerback Terrence Wheatley, Michigan linebacker Shawn Crable, San Diego State quarterback Kevin O’Connell, Auburn cornerback Jonathan Wilhite and Nebraska linebacker Bo Ruud.
Lost in the shuffle was UCLA wide receiver/defensive back Matthew Slater, whom the team traded up to select in Round 5, pick 153 overall.
At the time, the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jackie Slater was referred to as just that. The 6’0”, 210-pounder’s collegiate resume consisted of zero receptions, two rushes for minus-six yards, 26 tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles, one punt return for minus-seven yards and 34 kick returns for 986 yards and three touchdowns.
He was considered versatile. He was considered a man of high character. He was considered many things, but the Bruin was not considered one of the two best players from New England’s 2008 draft class.
In hindsight, he was.
Slater’s stay in Foxborough, Mass., has far outlasted the stays of Wheatley, Crable, O’Connell, Wilhite and Ruud. And it hasn’t been because of his one catch for 46 yards on offense or his 111 snaps on defense.
It has been because of his vitality on special teams.
Slater has relished as a gunner and lead blocker during kickoffs and punts, running full-speed downfield to tackle return men or protect his own. In the process, the 28-year-old has secured 78 tackles, two All-Pro awards and a captainship during his tenure with the Patriots.
Yet as a player who’s made a livelihood out of the dirty work, Slater’s efforts often go overlooked. Although with a broken wrist now sidelining him for four-to-six weeks, the absence of No. 18 will highlight his value.
While Slater has handled 28 kicks during his Patriots career, the All-American returner has been primarily facilitated as a lead blocker – a role less heralded than it should be, given that the man fielding the ball needs a place to run it.
Enter LeGarrette Blount.
As the 6’0”, 250-pound running back harnessed a kickoff deep in the end zone against the New York Jets in Week 2, Slater teamed up with tight end Michael Hoomanawanui to form a wedge between the hashes.
Blount saw the two-man block forming to his left. Nearby, he saw another one form between fullback James Develin and tight Matt Mulligan. He continued up the field, looking to split the seam between his four teammates and the enclosing defenders.
For Hoomanawanui and Slater, the enclosing defender was cornerback Ellis Lankster, who had a full head of steam after running from the far side of the field.
Slater squared his base and hit him.
Hoomanawanui soon followed.
The double-team pushed Lankster back, clearing a lane for Blount to run through after he surpassed the Develin-Mulligan block on Jets safety Jaiquawn Jarrett. Unfortunately for Blount, no Patriot was left to fend off circling linebacker Nick Bellore and awaiting safety Josh Bush.
Blount was wrapped up by Bellore and Bush after a 25-yard gain. But through the whistle, Slater stuck with his assignment. He pushed his hands into the Lankster’s numbers until the threatening tackler was 10 yards away from making a play.
At game speed, Slater’s blocks usually go unnoticed. In this case, though, he was sure to make Lankster notice.
While the league’s decision to move kickoffs up five yards has exponentially spiked the amount of touchbacks seen any given Thursday, Sunday or Monday, the blueprint is still the same for core special teamers like Slater:
Stay in your lane. Fight through wedges. Stop the ball-carrier.
Slater does his best check off those guidelines every chance he gets. He does so from the “L5” spot – to the immediate left of kicker Stephen Gostkowski. From there, the Anaheim, Calif., native gallops towards the end zone where he greets kick returners.
Versus the Jets, Slater exemplified all the qualities coaches desire in a kickoff-coverage player. Those qualities were gleaned – even on a touchback.
As Gostkowski’s right foot collided with the teed-up football, Slater got himself up to speed on the inside track. Concurrently, the Jets front line draped back to orchestrate the blocks.
Gostkowski’s kickoff landed nine yards deep in the end zone, where Jets receiver Clyde Gates was caught it. The odds of Gates taking it out from such perilous quarters were slim. And the odds of him doing so with Slater leading “Flying V” inside two wedges were even slimmer.
Just as Slater led the blockade to the 10-yard line, Gates wisely took a knee. This one, like every other one Gostkowski kicked off that evening, would be placed at the 20.
Seldom is Slater second to the ball.
It takes all 11 players to return a punt, even if only one carries the football. It is a concept that sounds simple in theory, and looks like a free-for-all in practice, but Slater can attest to its deception.
“Not a lot of people really understand what we do because it kind of looks chaotic,” Slater told CSNNE.com’s Tom E. Curran last December. “But there is some organization to that, and I do believe that it’s a craft in itself. It may be under-appreciated at times, but we put a lot into it.”
Slater does put a lot into it – from both sides of the spectrum. While he can be seen making tackles on returners, he also can be seen preventing tacklers from getting to his returner.
He did the latter against the Jets last Thursday night.
Standing off the left side of New England’s line, Slater readied to charge Jarrett, who was playing the right wing in New York’s punt protection. He did not intend to block a punt; he intended to close off Jarrett, reverse field, and buy time for wideout/returner Julian Edelman to return the ball.
As then-Jets punter Tom Malone inherited the ball, Slater stepped into Jarrett with his elbows in and his hands up. He latched on, he kept his feet moving forward, and as a result, his leverage knocked the winger backwards.
Malone launched the punt, effectively cueing Slater to switch direction towards its landing place. The sixth-year pro disengaged from Jarrett’s pads, turning back the same way he came.
Jarrett soon joined him.
The two fought for the same territory, gaining ground on one another as Edelman loomed nearby. The return man wasn’t in possession of the ball just yet, but the diagonal runway was already forming out ahead.
By the time Edelman had reeled the ball in, Lankster had spun around Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib. The same could not be said for Jarrett. He had not spun around Slater. Instead, he was tossed out of the vicinity by Slater.
Edelman capitalized on that as he slanted towards midfield.
After a missed tackle tripped up his progress, Edelman was finally dragged down by Talib’s gunner. Nonetheless, with the aid of Slater’s last-second clash on Jarrett, Edelman was able to acquire 10 yards and bring New England’s offense out at the 39.
It wasn’t a pretty play by Slater; it was just an effective one.
Embodying the toughness to combat the jam, the agility to break down the sidelines, and the body control to make open-field tackles are three vital prerequisites to playing outside on punt coverage. And what makes those three attributes all the more challenging is one variable across the line of scrimmage:
Is there one blocker to beat on the return? Or, are there two?
For Slater, the return team typically sends out two, which detracts one shield from the other gunner and the slots. This makes the end goal more difficult to attain for Slater. But on the other side of the coin, the display of respect affords his teammates with a better opportunity to crack protection.
Nevertheless, the two-man defense is not the be-all, end-all to cracking protection. Slater proved that against Jets special teams coordinator Mike Kotwica on Sept. 12.
With cornerbacks Isaiah Trufant and Darrin Walls deployed against him, Slater had a couple roadblocks between himself and return man Kyle Wilson. Across the numbers on the left sideline, Patriots corner and left gunner Marquice Cole had one in Lankster.
As undrafted rookie punter Ryan Allen took the snap and booted the ball, Cole was able to brush by Lankster across the field. Slater met a different fate, as Walls shoved him out of bounds and Trufant braced for his reentrance.
Even with the disruptions derailing his run, Slater reestablished himself inbounds, cut in front of his defenders on his journey 50 yards downfield.
As Kerley garnered the punt, he also garnered Slater. The right gunner outran the two-Jets press and swarmed in to take Kerley’s feet out from underneath him. In turn, that meant Ryan’s 49-yard punt gave way to a New York return of only four yards.
Slater’s stability through contact, his pursuit, and his tackling ability aren’t the traditional traits of a wide receiver.
That’s because he’s not a traditional wide receiver. He’s a “Big Four” special teams captain.
And what he does for the Patriots isn’t visible in the stat sheet; it’s visible in the final score.