The New England Patriots’ game against the Cincinnati Bengals was a close affair early on, with both the team’s offense and defense struggling to hit their groove in the first quarter. The tide began to turn in the second period, however, and the world champions’ special teams units once again played their part in it with veterans Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel combining to produce the game’s first turnover — one that led to three Patriots points.
After the offense’s two-minute drill stalled just three plays in, New England sent rookie punter Jake Bailey onto the field to kick the football away. The punt gave a Cincinnati offense that had moved the football well up until that point another chance to head into the locker room at the half with momentum on its side. Instead, however, Slater forced returnman Alex Erickson to fumble the ball with Bethel jumping on it for the recovery.
“You know, Matt works very hard on those plays for us,” head coach Bill Belichick said after the game. “It doesn’t matter if it’s coverage or downing the ball on punts, he does it. Also, the timing of his tackling and precision compressing the coverage, he does that well for us. I couldn’t tell, but I thought it was Bethel that actually came up with the ball. They both played with great effort and made a nice play there. Those two guys did a great job for us this afternoon.”
The two veteran special teamers having an impact on the kicking game is nothing new. While Slater has both a touchdown off a blocked punt and a blocked punt himself on his résumé so far this season — let alone the fumble he forced against Cincinnati — Bethel now has recovered two fumbles since joining the Patriots as a free agent in late October. Together, the duo has directly contributed to 24 of New England’s points.
“He’s in year 14, but when your dad plays 20, you have to play 20 as well,” fellow team captain Devin McCourty said about the ageless wonder Slater during his postgame press conference. “It’s been cool just to watch him out there. He looks like he’s 25 — first guy down — and you add Bethel in there. Having those two guys at the gunner spot, it’s tough. Slate gets in there, and gets a hand, and Bethel is right behind.”
“Just having those two guys are such a big help for us, special teams-wise,” continued McCourty. On Sunday the duo played a key role in the Patriots entering the second half of the game against Cincinnati in positive fashion: four plays after Bethel’s fumble recovery, New England took a 13-10 lead on a 46-yard field goal by Nick Folk — a lead that the team would not give up again, eventually beating the Bengals 34-13.
While three points may not have made much of a difference when looking solely at the final score, the play itself was still a huge one for the Patriots. For one of the men in question, however, it represents more than just a shift in momentum during the Week 15 contest: Matthew Slater made sure to point out during his postgame media availability that he is merely playing a role on the team despite the impact he has had so far this season.
“It’s not about me. I’ve been blessed with this opportunity to still get down there in my old age. I’m thankful for that and to be a part of this football team.” Slater said before turning the attention to his running mate, Justin Bethel. “It’s a lot of fun. To have players like that — there aren’t a lot like that in the league. To have that physical ability to go out and dominate matchups, but then at the same time to mentally be in tune, is amazing.”
“It’s like he’s been here for five years. We’re fortunate to have him. He’s a great guy, has a great attitude. I can’t say enough about him,” the 34-year-old continued about his teammate. Together with fellow core special teamers Nate Ebner, Brandon Bolden, Rex Burkhead and Chase Winovich, Bethel and Slater have helped the Patriots’ punt coverage unit become one of the best in the business — one that is seemingly making game-changing plays on a weekly basis.
With New England’s offense still struggling to find its chemistry and field position therefore becoming a major factor in games, having this lethal combination of gunners on the roster certainly is paying major dividends for the cub.