New England Patriots


Co-captain Matthew Slater knows that one of first tenets of toughness in the Patriots’ philosophy starts with the opening kickoff.



By Bob Socci, 98.5 The Sports Hub

In the immediate moments following 60 of the most frustrating on-field minutes we’ve seen from the Patriots in recent memory, NBC Sports Boston reporter Phil Perry sought out the third-longest tenured — and perhaps sagest — Patriots player to ask about the team’s toughness.

“To be determined,” 11th-year Patriot and eight-time co-captain Matthew Slater replied to Perry late Sunday night after a 26-10 loss in Detroit. “When adversity hits you find out about the character of someone. I think we’re going to find out a lot about who we are in the coming days.”

Slater has long embodied the most important qualities of his team’s character when the Pats have been at their best. And at the same time, he’s been as good an example as any for others when the team’s makeup was tested and mettle measured during struggles of the past.

Only last fall at the age of 32, Slater was sidelined by injury while his teammates scuffled through a 2-2 start. He eventually returned as his not-so-old-yet-still-reliable self to earn All-Pro (Second Team) distinction and a record-tying seventh straight Pro Bowl selection. In February, for the fourth time in his career, Slater was covering punts and kickoffs in a Super Bowl.

Slater’s remarks called to mind a recently-underlined passage from the book Gridiron Genius, by former Patriots coaching assistant and longtime NFL personnel man Michael Lombardi. In the chapter “Special Teams: The Meaning of All-In,” Lombardi’s wrote, “To [Bill] Belichick, special teams are the heart and soul of a team, the ideal way to establish culture, chemistry and toughness and develop the talent of the entire roster.”

(Photo courtesy Bob Socci)

On Wednesday, as Slater and his teammates turned the page to this weekend’s visit by Miami, he was asked if he sees his unit in same light as Lombardi writes.

“When you talk toughness, Coach Belichick preaches running the ball, stopping the run and covering kicks,” Slater said. “Those are the three things that jump out right away.”

As Perry and others have documented — and you, no doubt, already saw for yourself — the Pats have thus far failed to meet Belichick’s first two tenets of developing toughness through three games. They’ve been out-gained on the ground by an average of 143.3-97.7 yards per game. What’s more, four times in three weeks when a Patriots running back has carried on third-and-2 or less, he’s been stuffed for either no gain or negative yardage.

DETROIT, MI - SEPTEMBER 23: Running back Kerryon Johnson of the Detroit Lions picks up yardage against the New England Patriots during the first half at Ford Field. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

DETROIT, MI – SEPTEMBER 23: Running back Kerryon Johnson of the Detroit Lions picks up yardage against the New England Patriots during the first half at Ford Field. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, that third principle of which Slater speaks has also been problematic.

In Week 1, Houston’s offense took the field at the 30-yard line or beyond four times after six kickoffs. Tyler Ervin averaged 31.2 yards per return, with a long of 36. The past two games, at Jacksonville and Detroit, Jaydon Mickens and Jamal Agnew, respectively, combined for five punt returns and average of 9.8 yards. Each had took one back 16 yards, matching the longest punt return the Patriots surrendered in 2017, when they held opponents to just 4.6 yards per runback. Agnew also had returns of 31 yards and 10 yards nullified by penalties.


“When you come into this building you really have to manage your expectations. You can’t get caught up in the outside hype or how people perceive this team, this organization because nothing is guaranteed.”


Of concern aren’t just the yards adding up — both hidden and obvious — it’s the absence of the kind of tone-setting hits that we’ve been accustomed to watching the Pats deliver in the past. And when receiving punts, they could use the kind of gritty returns that tough-as-nails Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman used to give them.

Amendola will be back in Foxborough this Sunday as a member of Miami; as will Brandon Bolden, who sent more than a few messages covering kicks and sticking it to opponents during his six seasons in New England. Teammate Jakeem Grant is one of the game’s most exciting return men, as part of one of the league’s top units. All have helped put the Dolphins in position to bid for their first 4-0 record since 1995.

MIAMI, FL - AUGUST 25: Danny Amendola of the Miami Dolphins celebrates a touchdown in the second quarter during a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens at Hard Rock Stadium. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

MIAMI, FL – AUGUST 25: Danny Amendola of the Miami Dolphins celebrates a touchdown in the second quarter during a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens at Hard Rock Stadium. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

Meeting Miami’s match and exceeding its intensity, starting with the opening kickoff, are musts if the Patriots are to avoid their first three-game losing skid in 16 years.

“I certainly think that’s something we’ve prided ourselves on in the past and we need to do a better job,” Slater says of special teams setting a tone. “There’s a lot of room for improvement from our group, within our group, playing with a higher sense of urgency, playing more physical, playing with our hands.”

The time for talking about it was Wednesday. Now Slater and his teammates have to do it on Sunday. Week 4 is a new chapter, and an opportunity for current Pats to recapture what’s tried-and-true in these parts.

“What’s happened in the past couple of weeks has no bearing on what’s going to happen this week,” Slater says. “I think the mission is to just control the day. Before we can play well on Sunday we have to practice well, we have to eat well, we have to have good days leading up to the game.

“When you come into this building you really have to manage your expectations. You can’t get caught up in the outside hype or how people perceive this team, this organization because nothing is guaranteed. Things are always in flux in this league, on this team and we just have to focus on the guys that are here now, the opportunity we have now and trying to make the most of it.”

You can hear Bob Socci on the call of the game on every game day for the New England Patriots, right here on 98.5 The Sports Hub. You can also hear him on his own The Gridiron And Beyond podcast at 985TheSportsHub.com.