When talking about special teams play in the 21st century NFL, outstanding returnmen like Dante Hall or Devin Hester will get mentioned right away as will clutch place kickers like Adam Vinatieri. However, one name can also not be missed from the conversation: Matthew Slater. As one of the league’s premier kicking game players of his era, Slater is a key member of two New England Patriots Super Bowl-wining teams.
Helping the team win two trophies and ten straight AFC East titles is just one part of his outstanding résumé. Known for his off-field persona and involvement in community causes, the Patriots’ team captain also was regularly voted to the Pro Bowl by his peers and the fans: he was named to seven straight all-star games between 2011 and 2017 before the streak was broken last week.
For the first time since 2010, Slater is considered one of the elite special teamers in football. However, that does not mean his impact is any less. In fact, the Buffalo Bills found out on Sunday just how well the 33-year old is still performing: playing 20 of 29 snaps in the kicking game, Slater finished the contest with two tackles. And two downed punts. And a partially blocked punt attempt that sailed for just 10 yards.
After the game, Bill Belichick spoke fondly of the veteran. “Matt’s been a great player for us and a great leader, a great captain,” the Patriots’ head coach said. “I’ve been really fortunate here to have two great special teams captains with Larry Izzo and then with Slate. Slate’s just been tremendous. He’s unselfish and he’s a great player that can impact the game in a lot of different ways — coverage, downing, rushing kicks, matching up on key guys in the return game.”
“He’s given us a lot of great play,” Belichick continued about the 2008 fifth-round draft pick out of UCLA. However, the veteran coach was quick to point out that one player alone cannot make for a good special teams unit. “It was a lot of good teamwork today. [...] Slate, Nate Ebner, Brandon King didn’t play today but all of those guys have done a great job for us all year. Jon Jones — I mean, they’ve all just stepped up and made plays; [Albert] McClellan in the Miami game.”
Even though Slater plays a position that tends to fly under the radar a bit — while listed as a wide receiver he caught only one pass over the course of his career and plays almost exclusively as a gunner in the kicking game — he is as integral to New England’s operation as any other player. On Sunday, his impact was on display once again: Slater stood out on special teams and helped the Patriots win the field position battle and by extension the game.
And even though his 2018 season will not end with a Pro Bowl berth, Slater’s performance and the leadership he provides for his teammates will again be contributing factors if the years is capped with a far more rewarding trophy: the one named after former Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi handed out to the Super Bowl winning team. Slater has been part of two and him playing as well as he did on Sunday might help him get his hands onto a third.