FOXBORO -- Matthew Slater knows that most people don't get it. When they watch a special teams play, they don't realize why players are doing what they're doing, or how. He knows that to them, it looks out of control, like a game of Kill the Man with the Ball, played by very large, very fast men.
"Not a lot of people really understand what we do because it kind of looks chaotic," Slater said. "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."
Since arriving to New England as a fifth-round pick out of UCLA in the 2008 draft, Slater has carved a reputation as one of the NFL's best special teams players, thriving in the perceived bedlam. The Patriots captain has 19 tackles this season, and is often the first Patriots coverage-unit player to the ball during returns.
He was named a Pro Bowler for the second consecutive year earlier this week.
As recently as 2011 training camp, Slater was on the bubble to make the Patriots roster. But he has proven to be one of the team's most versatile players, appearing at both receiver and safety at points last season, and he now serves as a four-core player, someone who plays on kickoff, kick return, punt and punt return units.
"I just try to maintain faith and just embrace my role over the years, whatever it was," Slater said. "And I kind of just found my niche special teams-wise."
Slater recently took time to explain in detail one of his four-core duties -- as a gunner on the punt team -- so that his largely overlooked area of expertise might be better understood.
From what happens before the snap to when the whistle is blown, Slater described how he is able to so consistently disrupt opposing punt returners.
AT THE LINE
When Slater lines up wide for a Patriots punt, he usually sees two players staring him in the face. It wasn't always that way, but he knows double-teams come with the territory of having a reputation that now includes "two-time Pro Bowler."
Patriots special teams coach Scott O'Brien warned Slater that would happen.
"I remember Scottie telling me that I'd have a target on my back from last year on," Slater said. "I kind of just try to just embrace that role . . . They might send a few extra guys your way. You might see a few more double-teams. You might encounter a little more smack talk. Things of that nature. Every team is different, every team has different schemes. But it's hard to isolate on me because we have so many good players across the board. I feel like this is one of the best groups I've been a part of so my hat's off to my teammates."
As he waits for the snap, Slater knows it's up to those teammates to protect punter Zoltan Mesko in order for him to have a chance to do his job.
"Initially, first thing's first: The protection is more important than anything I do because if the punt doesn't get off then I'm not gonna matter," Slater explained. "Those guys have done a good job. We've gotten a lot of rushes this year and those guys have done a good job inside and Mesko has done a good job of getting the ball off."
As soon as the ball is snapped, Slater's dance begins.
"If you try to take on two guys, you're not going to win," Slater said. "It's two versus one. They're professional athletes as well as you are. It's trying to set yourself up to have the best angle you can to attack one guy.
"From there, if you have to deal with the other, it's coming down to angles and your technique. That's something that Scott and special teams assistant Joe Judge and myself over the years, even when safeties coach Brian Flores was coaching the gunners, that was just something we really worked on was technique and really being efficient. Not wasting time at the line. Then it becomes almost a street fight. It's never gonna be clean. You're gonna have contact."
No matter how Slater can avoid it, he wants to be free from the hands of the players blocking him as quickly as possible.
"The more they can get their hands on you the slower you are to get downfield so you try to get their hands off of you and get space and separation when you can," Slater said.
Whether he tries to avoid blocks by going inside or outside -- or if he has free reign to go either way -- depends on multiple factors, including field position, the direction of the punt, and how players on the return unit are aligned inside.
"There's so many things that go into it," Slater said. "Where we are on the field is a huge part of it. Are we in the plus area going in (on the opposing team's side of the 50-yard line) or are we in the minus area getting backed up (on the Patriots' side of the 50)? A lot of things go into it."
Once he's away from the line, Slater's job is to be as fast as possible while still physical enough to not be knocked off of his line to the returner. This is the part of the coverage game to which Slater has had to do the most adapting since he's been in the league.
"My rookie year, I had no clue," Slater said. "I thought just being fast was all I needed."
Since joining the NFL, he's put on 15 pounds of muscle (he's now a sturdy 6-feet, 210 pounds) in order to better withstand the constant pushing and shoving as he runs downfield toward his target.
"It's a fight all the way down the field," he said. "As well as a street fight, it's a race. It's a sprint. You're trying to out-physical guys and out-run guys at the same time."
Slater doesn't know if he's the fastest player on the Patriots, but there's no question that his ability to play at full-speed while making the smart play is revered by his teammates.
"Not everyone can play that fast and do the right things," said Devin McCourty, who has played along Slater on special teams the last three seasons. "I think that's why he's so good. He can play at his top speed doing the right things and making plays. Some people have to slow down. Especially on special teams where it's 11 guys and there's no real form to it like on offense and defense. He's able to play 100 mph and just cause havoc everywhere."
Slater knows that for all the angles and techniques he's grasped, the havoc-wreaking mentality he possesses as a gunner is just as vital to his success.
"It's a street fight, it really is," Slater said. "There's not a lot of penalties called at that position. I think it's a mentality of want-to and technique, but you've got to be ready to fight. I don't mean fight in a dirty way, but you have to be ready to fight. I think that's the mentality that a lot of the good ones have. If you watch Lions special teamer Kasim Osgood over the years, he was a great one, still is great one. He just had that mentality of, 'I'm knocking anybody that gets in my way.' I think that's a huge part of it."
FINISHING THE PLAY
Slater says he keeps his eyes fixated on the returner as he races downfield. To look for the ball at any point during its flight would be a bad idea, he insists.
"The returner will you lead you to it every time because he's going to field it," Slater said. "I'm just looking at the returner. I can't worry about where the ball is. I just have to worry about the guy that's going to catch the ball. If you start looking up for the ball, that's a great way to get yourself a nice hit in the mouth. It's all about going to the returner and finding out where he is. He'll take you to the ball.
"As you get down there, you try to gather yourself, get under control and put yourself in a position to make a play on the ball. It's not the easiest thing to do when you're running full speed and you've got one or two guys trying to kill you. It is something that I think, over time, I do it and I gain an experience and that's an experience to put in the tool belt and the memory bank. I can honestly say that no two plays are the same. Every time something different is happening."
When the Patriots are in position to try to pin a team deep in its own territory with a punt, the rules change slightly. There are times when a returner willingly takes himself out of the play to allow the punt (hopefully, for him) to bounce into the end zone for a touchback. On those, Slater will try to find the ball before it gets to the goal line.
He explained that he and Mesko work on downing punts near the goal line, tracking unpredictable bounces and even making acrobatic dives to try to keep a ball in play.
"That's tough," he said. "Honestly we do practice it a lot. Zoltan and I have worked on it for years now. It's something I don't think we'll ever perfect because there's so many variabilities that can happen the ball can bounce here, the ball can go here and I'm over here. We try to practice it and try to get a feel for the timing of it all, get a feel for my body in space as it relates to Zoltan's ball in the air. I think it's one of those things that you have to continue to work it, continue to work it, and then once the situation comes up in the game, we're able to execute. We practice it a lot."
Patriots rookie Nate Ebner, a special teamer taken in the seventh round of this year's draft, has noticed Slater's diligence in working on his craft. He knows that when it comes to that phase of the game, he has a teammate to look up to.
"I just try to watch," Ebner said. "A lot of it is instinctual and repetition. Matt's gotten so good at it, I just try to do everything I can as best I can, watch everything he does whenever I can, and try to emulate that."
When Slater first started to dream of making the NFL, he never thought it would be as a special teamer. He saw so many coaches and players who treated that third of the game as an afterthought that it wasn't until his junior year at UCLA when he truly started to grasp the impact special teams could have on games.
Now after learning under coach Bill Belichick, O'Brien, and former teammates like Larry Izzo and Matt Chatham, he says he can't picture playing a football game without participating on special teams -- even if the masses who watch him may not always understand what it is he's doing.
"I love it," Slater said. "I would say I get the same thrill and exhilaration out of covering a punt or a kickoff, or a punt return or a kickoff return, as somebody would out of catching a touchdown pass. I've really grown to love this phase of the game and I can honestly say I love it more than any other phase because it's how I've been able to have a career in this league."