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Special circumstances of making Patriots roster

08.27.13 at 3:50 pm ET

FOXBORO — It’s common practice among head coaches and general managers around the NFL to save the last spots on a 53-man roster for those who can do special things on special teams.

It’s here where a player can often make his mark and then move up the food chain of the roster to a positional grouping on offense or defense.

Special teams captain Matthew Slater is just one example. He was a receiver and special teams standout at UCLA with great speed. But what Bill Belichick saw in him was the intelligence as a gunner on special teams to be in the right place at the right time and make tackles. Over the years there have been many. Matt Chatham and Larry Izzo are just two linebackers that come to mind who earned their stripes on special teams. It’s not unusual to see Brandon Spikes or Dont’a Hightower on kick coverages.

With so many teams looking for every and any way to keep players this week, special teams is a landing place for many. Perhaps Leon Washington stays on the team because he is a sure-handed veteran returner and a fifth running back. Maybe linebacker Mike Rivera sticks because he’s a linebacker who can play on special teams. The same could be said of Dane Fletcher and Jeff Tarpinian. And then, of course, there’s Tim Tebow.

If you want to focus on one area Thursday night, try watching special teams very closely. Players who make big plays in coverage carry a lot of weight to Belichick. He explained as much Tuesday.

“It’€™s different. You just can’€™t practice special teams at the same speed that it happens in the game,” he said. “No matter how hard you try to practice it that way, it’€™s just not the same: the live tackling, the whole space situation that’€™s created in the kicking game. You practice it, you certainly evaluate it in practice but it doesn’€™t always quite show up that way in the game due to game speed and the athleticism that’€™s required of the players in space to block, tackle, avoid getting in the lanes, make those judgments, all those kinds of things in the coverage and the return game.

“Preseason production in the kicking game is certainly a factor. Practice is a factor but assuming that guys have their assignments right, then it comes down to performance and production and that’€™s not easy to gauge in practice. You can attempt to do it based on what you see but it’€™s not the same as what you see in a game.”

Is it safe to say that individual performance in special teams carries a bit more than offense or defense?

“Possibly, I think so,” Belichick said. “Again, I think you have to evaluate the plays and specifically what happened. But still, yeah, it’€™s hard to see it in practice. There were some good examples in the Philadelphia and Tampa practices where it was good, competitive situations of punt and punt return, guys trying to get off the line, guys trying to hold them up, that type of thing; the gunners against the vices outside. But it’€™s still not totally game conditions whereas things like a defensive back covering a receiver can be pretty close to a game situation. Maybe not the tackling or the actual finish part of it, but the actual coverage. You can do one-on-one pass rush, one-on-one pass protection pretty close to what it is in a game.

“It’€™s a lot harder to get that same situation in the kicking game where you run 40 yards, avoid a guy, tackle him, block him, with a returner involved, with the amount of space that’€™s involved. It’€™s just hard to create that. The contact and all that is much more in the games than it is in practice.”

Read More: 2013 training camp, Matthew Slater, New England Patriots, New York Giants



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