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Have Patriots regained their special teams’ mojo? 09.13.16 at 7:31 pm ET
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Stephen Gostkowski and the rest of the Patriots' special teamers played a sizable role in Sunday's win. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Stephen Gostkowski and the rest of the Patriots’ special teamers played a sizable role in Sunday’s win. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

After an occasionally down 2015, the Patriots’ special teams enjoyed a terrific start to 2016 on Sunday.

Whether it was the work of the kick coverage team in pinning Arizona deep in its own end on the last kickoff of the game, or Stephen Gostowski’s 3-for-3 night on field goal attempts, or Ryan Allen and the punt coverage unit accounting for an impressive 40.5 net yards per punt, it was a good night all around. (That doesn’t even take into account the fact that Patrick Chung apparently came close to blocking what would have been a game-winning field goal attempt from Arizona that was ultimately off the mark.)

Winning the field position battle is always key, but the margin for error with a young quarterback at the controls is even slimmer. The Patriots held the edge all night on the Cardinals — in non-turnover situations, the average starting field position for Arizona was its own 22-yard line, including six times at its own 25 or worse.

The ability to tilt the field paid off on several occasions for New England on both sides of the ball. It allowed Jimmy Garoppolo a little more leeway on offense, while the defense found itself in plenty of optimal situations all night long.

Chung has described the art of special teams as a “legalized, 40-yard fistfight,” a phrase he picked up from a college coach while at Oregon. If that’s the case, the Patriots soundly beat the Cardinals on points Sunday night.

“I think we did a good job of just playing together,” said special teams captain Matthew Slater, one of several special teamers’ singled out by coach Bill Belichick earlier this week. “Understanding how we were going to be played and how we were going to execute and giving ourselves a chance to win the field position battle.”

He added: “Every man that went out there knew what he needed to do and we played together. It wasn’t guy just running around and trying to make plays on his own. It was everybody playing together.”

Their work as a group stands in stark contrast to some of last year’s low points. A franchise that prides itself on peerless special teams play came up lacking in many big moments: Slater himself said the special teams was to blame for the surprising loss to the Eagles, a defeat that played a role in the Patriots losing home-field advantage. And Gostkowski’s missed extra point in the AFC title game was an awful gaffe that came back to haunt New England. Because of those misfires — as well as a few others — the Patriots fell from third to 11th in the annual special teams rankings from Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News.

But Sunday’s performance certainly sparked some optimism that New England’s special teams unit will be able to bounce back in 2016. On a conference call with reporters earlier this week, Belichick mentioned several names as being key to their success against the Cardinals, including Slater, Nate Ebner, Brandon Bolden and Jonathan Freeny.

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Read More: Bill Belichick, Matthew Slater, Patrick Chung, Stephen Gostkowski
Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater, Dont’a Hightower reportedly named 2016 Patriots captains 09.06.16 at 5:16 pm ET
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Rob Gronkowski

Rob Gronkowski

The Patriots have reportedly named captains for the 2016 season.

According to ESPN’s Field Yates, Rob Gronkowski, Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater and Dont’a Hightower will be the captains for this season. The team was notified after practice on Tuesday.

For Gronkowski and Hightower it is their first season as captains and sixth for both Slater and McCourty as they were first captains in the 2011 season.

Tom Brady and Rob Ninkovich were both captains last year, so it wouldn’t be too surprising to see one of, if not both be named captains when they return for Week 5.

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Read More: Devin McCourty, Dont'a Hightower, Matthew Slater, Rob Gronkowski
Matthew Slater admits ‘there’s room for improvement’ in NFL drug policy after Rob Ninkovich ban 09.04.16 at 2:29 pm ET
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Matthew Slater

Matthew Slater

FOXBORO — Tom Brady isn’t the only Patriots veteran who’s going through a painful four-game suspension to start the 2016 season.

Defensive lineman/linebacker Rob Ninkovich was hit with a four-game ban for violating the NFL’s drug policy for performance enhancers.

Ninkovich told ESPN’s Mike Reiss that he was “devastated” by the news, and that the violation was a complete surprise to him.

The issue of a trusted veteran inside an NFL locker room unwittingly getting into trouble with banned substances is not new. But it does bring to light an issue the NFL and the Players Association has been grappling with for years: How to best inform its players of the dangers of using supplements that might seem legal over-the-counter but are banned by the league in the CBA.

Is there something the NFLPA and the league could be doing to better help players, young and veteran alike? Should PED suppliers be held more accountable legally when they prescribe substances to players?

Matthew Slater has unique perspective in this regard. He has served as a team rep for NFLPA issues and he has been a close friend of Ninkovich since the linebacker came to the Patriots in 2009.

“There’s always room for improvement in whatever it is you do in life. There’s room for improvement for us as professionals, even what I do, what [media] does, there’s room for improvement,” Slater said Sunday. “Yes, there’s room for improvement in that area. What that looks like, it’s not for me to say. That’s a little bit above my pay grade. We’ll see what happens moving forward. We want what’s best, obviously, for the shield and that’s very important. But we also want what’s best for our players.

“But at the same time, integrity and doing the things the right way is something that’s important to all of us. So we’ll see.”

Slater said he sympathizes for Ninkovich during this time.

“Rob’s a good friend of mine,” Slater added. “I know him and I talked about that situation. I understand what happened. I understand the situation is what it is. I love Rob. He’s been a great friend to me and my family so support him as best I can. It is unfortunate. But I think that’s all I can really say about that.”

Read More: Matthew Slater, New England Patriots, Rob Ninkovich,
Report: Patriots ink ST Matthew Slater to new deal through 2017 08.31.16 at 8:08 am ET
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The Patriots have signed special teams ace Matthew Slater to a one-year, $1.8 million extension through 2017, according to ESPN.

The 30-year-old Slater, a fifth-round pick of New England in 2008, has become one of the best special teamers in the game. A five-time Pro Bowler, the 6-foot, 198-pounder has served as the Patriots special teams captain for the last few seasons.

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Matthew Slater supports Nate Ebner by wearing No. 43 jersey at Patriots practice 07.28.16 at 2:35 pm ET
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FOXBORO — When taking attendance at the first Patriots training camp practice, it was strange seeing a No. 43 jersey on the field considering Nate Ebner is off preparing with the U.S. Rugby team for the upcoming Summer Olympics.

Ebner wasn’t back with the Patriots, instead it was special teams captain Matthew Slater showing his support for his fellow core special-teamer.

“I have a lot of respect for that guy,” Slater said. “I wanted to show him a little love today. This is supporting him as he chases his dream.”

Added Slater: “He might be a little bit surprised. I didn’t give him the heads-up. Hopefully he doesn’t get mad I had his jersey on.”

Even though Ebner hasn’t been able to be at Gillette Stadium with the rest of his team, Slater has made sure to keep him up to speed with what he’s missed.

“He’s living his dream, and not a lot of people get that opportunity to be an Olympian,” Slater said. “I gave him the install from (Wednesday). He knows what we did (Thursday morning). I’m sure I’ll give him the install (Thursday night). We know when he comes back here, he’ll be all-in here, but he needs to focus on what he’s doing now, and we understand that.”

It’s likely Ebner returns in the middle of August and he’s expected to be ready for the 2016 season. The entire team is pulling for him to bring back a gold medal.

“It’s unbelievable,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said. “He’s a great worker, hard worker, Nate Ebner. Always on top of his game out here. I know he played rugby before he came to the NFL, so huge props to him. Amazing accomplishment, and best of luck to him. Hopefully he brings home that gold and then (rejoins) our team. That would be awesome.”

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Read More: 2016 training camp, Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner,
History Lesson: Bill Belichick’s coaching longevity rooted in consistency, adaptability 07.27.16 at 5:57 pm ET
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Bill Belichick begins his 42nd season in the NFL this month. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Bill Belichick begins his 42nd season in the NFL this month. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — To give you some perspective as to just how long Bill Belichick has been in the NFL, when the Patriots meet the Dolphins this year, Belichick will square off against a head coach in 38-year-old Adam Gase who wasn’t even born when Belichick took his first job as an assistant in the league.

This week marks the start of Belichick’s 42nd consecutive year in the National Football League, the last 17 of which have come as head coach of the Patriots. The longest-tenured head coach in the league with his current team (the closest is Cincy’s Marvin Lewis, who took over the Bengals in 2003), it’s a remarkable run for any coach in the NFL.

When it comes to stacking his resume against some of the greats of the game, entering the 2016 season, he’s at 223 career wins as a head coach, tops among all active coaches and fourth on the all-time list. This season, he’ll move past Curly Lambeau (at 226, fourth) on the all-time wins list, and will almost certainly pass Tom Landry (third with 250 career victories) before he’s done. While you never say never, it would probably take at least another decade for him to come anywhere near the likes of Don Shula (first, 328 career wins) or George Halas (second with 318 wins).

The 64-year-old Belichick, who first went to training camp as an special assistant with the Baltimore Colts in 1975 at the age of 23, has been working in the league ever since. He said that when it comes to coaching, there’s some carryover in preparation and approach. But in his experience, his approach over the previous 41 seasons has been to take each one as its own animal.

“Fundamentally I think a lot of things are the same; things you have to do in camp in order to prepare for a season,” he said Wednesday at the dawn of a new season. “But each year is different. Players are different, teams we play are different, things change in the league, there are some rule modifications, or whatever. Things like that. So, every year is different and the chemistry – each team is different. Even with some of the same players there’s still always a little bit of a different mix.”

According to one of his most senior assistants, Belichick’s consistent approach and a willingness to adapt have been key in getting him to this point.

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Read More: Bill Belichick, Dante Scarnecchia, Ivan Fears, Matthew Slater
Devin McCourty won’t be teasing Tom Brady about Deflategate: ‘Doubt there would be much joking about that’ at 4:30 pm ET
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Devin McCourty isn't about to tease Tom Brady about Deflategate. (Mike Petraglia/

Devin McCourty isn’t about to tease Tom Brady about Deflategate. (Mike Petraglia/

FOXBORO — There are things veteran players can do to other veteran players, especially at the beginning of training camp, to keep things loose and break up the monotony of training camp.

Busting Tom Brady about Deflategate is not on the list for Devin McCourty.

The Patriots seven-year veteran safety, sporting a Captain America “Trust Me” T-shirt at the podium, was asked Wednesday, the day before the first practice, if he might joke around with No. 12 about him having to sit out the first four games.

“No, the first day, I don’t think we talk about anything to do with football,” McCourty said. “I think it’s just guys catching up, seeing how families are doing and everything like that. But I doubt there would be much joking about that.”

Indeed, the Patriots were all business on Wednesday, as coaches held positional meetings with players on the eve of the first practice of camp.

The business of getting along without Tom Brady for the first four games was front and center, with players like McCourty and Matthew Slater the first to speak since Brady lost his appeal and decided to not pursue any further litigation.

“I think it’s [an] adjustment. Obviously, you can’t take the field without a guy like that and think you’re just going to go out there and pick up where you left off last year and fall right into stride, but I think we have a lot of good players,” McCourty said. “We have two other quarterbacks that have been very competitive. Jimmy [Garoppolo] has been here a couple of years now, so I think as a team we’ll just come together, go out there and figure out a way to win. That’s what it comes down to; we can’t stick on that subject, just prepare and get ready to play.”

Slater repeated the “adjustment” theme.

“It’s obviously going to be an adjustment,” Slater said. “We’re definitely thankful that he’s around now, and I think he brings so much to the table. There’s so much that we can learn from having him around, and obviously we all want to have a good training camp, it’s the foundation upon which the season is built, so I think he would definitely include himself in that group. Needless to say, there will definitely be an adjustment period for us in dealing with that, but we’re just going to take it one day at a time.”

Is the defense feeling more pressure to start strong, knowing the team will begin the season without Tom Brady leading the offense?

“I think from the outside, everyone will say that, but for us as a defense, even when you play with the greatest quarterback, we don’t go out there saying, ‘We only have to play OK because Tom [Brady] is here.’ We always want to play good football, go out there and really find out who we’ll be as a defense,” McCourty said. “It starts [Thursday] at practice with attitude, toughness, running to the ball, condition. I think for us as a defense, we want to be a dominating defense no matter what the situation is and no matter who is out there on offense. We always kind of take the mentality and attitude that we have to go out there and play defense no matter if the offense is scoring touchdowns, if they’re not scoring touchdowns. I think if we can develop as individual units, that’s what makes us better as a whole.”

Read More: 2016 training camp, Devin McCourty, Matthew Slater, New England Patriots
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