Matthew Slater: Special Teams Superstar

On Monday night, the New England Patriots attempted to take on the Kansas City Chiefs in a game of football. They lost. Convincingly. For much of the night, they were outclassed, outhustled, and outthought by a Chiefs team that manhandled them in nearly every facet of the game. I use the qualifier “nearly every” because there is one position on the football field where the Patriots consistently rank head and shoulders above the rest of the competition out there. That position is punt gunner, and the man responsible for handling those duties for the Patriots is Matthew Slater.

Slater was selected in the fifth round of the 2008 draft with the 153rd overall pick. Although listed as a wide receiver out of college, the Patriots clearly had plans to utilize him extensively on special teams. In his rookie season, Slater played in 14 games, returning 11 kickoffs for 155 yards and recording 12 tackles on special teams. Since then, he has blossomed into a star special teams performer, making the Pro Bowl in each of the last three years and been bestowed with All-Pro honors in 2011 and 2012. His play on Monday night is a perfect example of why he has earned such recognition over the course of his career.

The still below shows the Patriots set up in a standard punt formation:

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Highlighted in the blue circles are what are known as “punt gunners,” with Slater aligned to the left of the formation at the top of the screen. The job of a punt gunner sounds relatively simple: He is tasked with getting down the field as quickly as possible and creating one of three outcomes – forcing a fair catch, making a tackle on the returner, or forcing the returner laterally to allow his other teammates to get down the field and make a tackle.

This next still is from roughly two seconds after the ball has been snapped:

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Ryan Allen has just punted the ball as the two gunners (circled in blue) begin to work their way down the field. Already you can see that Slater is nearly eight yards downfield from the original line of scrimmage, whereas the other gunner is still running laterally and is only two yards downfield. Slater’s ability to get off the line cleanly and begin his move downfield is a major reason why he is so successful at his job.

Below, Slater (circled) continues to advance downfield, now a full 10 yards ahead of his nearest teammates. He is being pursued by two Chiefs blockers, one of whom is still nearly even with him at this point, approximately 25 yards into his coverage:

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As the play continues to move down the field, Slater (highlighted in blue) has pulled away from his blockers and is a full two yards ahead of the closest one:

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His quickness off the line allowed him to avoid their initial blocks, but it is his speed that allows him to be elite at his position. Once he gets vertical, Slater closes ground very quickly (his 40-yard-dash clocked in at 4.44 seconds during the 2008 NFL Combine.) At this point, Chiefs punt returner Frankie Hammond is preparing to receive the ball and begin a move to his left, while Slater begins to bear down on him and adjusts his angle to match.

Slater takes an absolutely perfect route to Hammond and makes a clean tackle on his legs to bring him down for no gain:

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This is the third part of Slater’s game that allows him to perform at a high level. As we saw last week with Devin Hester, Slater’s spatial awareness and innate sense of angles on the field are elite. He is rarely caught out of position due to his ability to read the action in front of him and put himself in the proper spot to make the play. And in this case, his ability to make the tackle eliminates a potentially explosive play by the Chiefs’ special teams.

The next view is from the end zone camera showing the initial setup of the punt formation:

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The Chiefs have six men in the box against the Patriots punt team. On the snap, one of the Kansas City defenders drops into coverage, leaving only five men to pressure the punter. This is clearly a setup for a return, rather than an attempt to block the punt.

Shortly after the ball is kicked, the punt coverage team from the Patriots begins to move down the field:

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Highlighted in red, two Chiefs begin to loop their routes in order to get outside their potential blocks on the left side. This indicates that the Chiefs are attempting to route the return to their left, as this setup will allow them to potentially wall off these blocks.

As the play progresses down the field, we now see that a number of Chiefs have gotten outside their men and are looking back to the inside for where their blocks need to be:

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The play is still very early in development, but it is clear that this return is being set up, even with nearly forty yards between the coverage team and Hammond. Also note that Slater has not been visible in any of these stills to this point.

Slater is now finally visible, coming off the right side of the screen and within five yards of Hammond as he catches the ball:

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Highlighted in blue are three unblocked Patriots. The Chief circled in red begins to take a route to loop to the other side of the nearest unblocked Patriot, setting him up for a block to seal the edge of the play. At the same time, the two Chiefs mentioned earlier are still in pursuit of their blocks (as shown by the red arrows) and are nearly ready to engage them.

Some may wonder why those players have not yet engaged their blocks. The primary reason is that it is very difficult to hold blocks on special teams plays for extended periods of time without incurring a holding penalty due to the motion involved between the players. Thus players on the receiving team will typically wait as long as possible to make blocks in order to avoid drawing a flag.

The final still is taken immediately after Slater makes his tackle on Hammond:

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However, let’s look at what is set up by the rest of the Chiefs. Nearly all of their players on the left side of the screen are now in positions where they can make blocks on Patriots to wall them off from the left side of the field. Highlighted in blue is the only free Patriot from the coverage team on that side of the field. If Slater does not make his tackle, it leaves a situation with Hammond and a coverage player one-on-one in space, which is exactly what the Chiefs are trying to create. Slater’s tackle saves a minimum of ten yards on this return, and potentially more if Hammond were able to elude the only other free Patriot in a position to tackle him.

Each week this season we have detailed the importance of a player doing his job, and how breakdowns in those individual assignments create big plays for the opposing team. This play is the exact opposite of that. Matthew Slater does precisely what he is supposed to do on this play. Moreover, his individual effort here undermines the Chiefs’ plans despite nearly every member of their return team doing their jobs. With speed and stellar execution he prevents the Chiefs from creating a major momentum swing on special teams. Matthew Slater is an All-Pro because he does his job on a consistent basis at the highest level, and this play is a perfect example of it.

Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.

Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, thehumanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.

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