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Extra special: Patriots special teams has excelled under coach Scott O’Brien 01.28.15 at 12:44 am ET
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Scott O'Brien has been the Patriots' special teams coach for six years. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Scott O’Brien has been the Patriots’ special teams coach for six years. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Often times on some NFL teams, the special teams unit gets over looked. Not so much with the New England Patriots.

Led by special teams coach Scott O’Brien — in his sixth year in New England, but serving as a special teams coach in the NFL since 1991 — the Patriots have emerged as one of the better special teams units in the league, making game-changing plays on numerous occasions.

The Patriots’ special teams group finished first in Rick Gosselin’s famous NFL special teams rankings this year and finished seventh in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ranking, a major credit to the work O’Brien has done with his players.

“I’€™m not sure,” O’Brien said when asked why he’s coached special teams exclusively for 23 seasons. “I’€™m sure I was influenced by a lot of people I came up with through my career. I’€™ve always enjoyed it as a player. I can’€™t put my finger on it, but it’€™s always been something I’€™ve enjoyed doing. I love the schemes, the creation of it. I don’€™t know. I don’€™t think it’€™s just one thing. I’€™ve had a lot of influences on me.”

New England has blocked five kicks this season — four field goals and one punt. The unit has seen three players get named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week in Chris Jones for his field goal block in the closing seconds against the Jets in Week 7, Julian Edelman for his punt return for a touchdown against the Broncos in Week 9 and Ryan Allen for his field position changing punts in Week 14 against the Chargers.

The four blocked field goals on the year was a franchise record.

“I think a lot of it has been, like I said, timing,” O’Brien said. “It’€™s a group effort no matter who blocks it. To block kicks in this league is hard to do. It usually takes more than one thing to happen to have that success, but I think these guys have always worked hard at it. You just get the right combination of the right players in the right spot. You give them a chance to have success, and they have it. It’€™s obviously had a big impact during the games.”

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Read More: 2015 NFL playoffs, Brandon Bolden, Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner
Patriots guarding against some sneaky Seahawks special teamers 01.27.15 at 1:03 am ET
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Matthew Slater says the Patriots are ready for anything the Seattle special teamers might throw at them. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Matthew Slater says the Patriots are ready for anything the Seattle special teamers might throw at them. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

CHANDLER, Ariz. –€” Over the course of the 2014 regular season, the Patriots were able to distinguish themselves as having one of the best special teams groups in the league. New England was able to deliver game-changing special teams plays almost every week, including blocked field-goal attempts, blocked punts and important returns.

Kicker Stephen Gostkowski was the second-best kicker in the league, converting 95 percent of his field-goal attempts. Meanwhile, punter Ryan Allen was 12th in the league in punting, and his work in a December win over the Chargers was enough to win him AFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors. Chris Jones, Chandler Jones, Vince Wilfork and Jamie Collins all blocked field goal attempts, and punt returner Julian Edelman‘€™s 12 yards per opportunity was second-best in the league. Overall, Football Outsiders had the Patriots as the fifth-best special teams grouping in the league.

At the same time, the Seahawks also had a relatively steady and dependable group of special teamers over the course of the 2014 season. They were 19th in the NFL per Football Outsiders, but they’€™ve taken it to the next level in the playoffs. In their divisional playoff win over the Panthers, defensive back Kam Chancellor jumped over the pile twice in hopes of trying to block field goals. Punter Jon Ryan — while working as a holder –€” executed a perfect fake field goal that ended up going for a touchdown in the NFC title game. And kicker Steven Hauschka delivered a well-executed onsides kick to help set up the win over the Packers as well.

According to Patriots special teams captain Matthew Slater, the focus this week for New England will be  playing with “a lot of alertness”€ against a sneaky group of Seattle special teamers.

“€œI think that we have to understand that every time our unit takes the field, we have to expect them to be trying to make a big play to swing momentum,”€ Slater said. “It’€™s our job to either stop that big play from happening or create one ourselves.

“€œWe’€™ve watched a lot of film on these guys. We have to be prepared situationally moving into the game. When you talk about trick plays, you never can predict those. At the end of the day, we’€™re going to have to play fundamentally sound and be able to react if something like that does come up.”

Read More: 2015 NFL playoffs, Matthew Slater, New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks
Patriots locker room reaction over Deflategate flap: ‘We’re just focusing on Seattle’ 01.22.15 at 3:07 pm ET
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FOXBORO — A handful of Patriots players addressed the charges of under-inflated footballs in last Sunday’s AFC title game against the Colts in the locker room Thursday morning:

Special teams captain Matthew Slater: “Certainly that is something we have addressed and will continue to address. I think it’s easy to get caught up in the hoopla. Your families are really excited but we have a job to do. This is not a vacation for us. This is not a celebration. We have a job to do and at the end of the day, that’s what it comes down to and that’s where our focus needs to be. As a team, to a man, we need to make sure we have our minds in the right place, our focus in the right place, and that’s playing football. That’s all that matters at the end of the day.”

Slater on any worries about Deflategate? “I feel pretty confident in saying we’re just focusing on Seattle. … We’re all about focusing on what’s going on inside these doors here and there’s always going to be a lot of buzz going outside these doors, and we’ve been trained to ignore that, and we have to. We can’t allow ourselves to get caught up in positive or negative things. We just have to focus on us and doing our jobs.”

Defensive end/long snapper Rob Ninkovich: “I’m not even getting into that, because really I’m focused on what I have to do, and that’s get better today. Practice for the biggest game of my life. I’m moving on from that — I have nothing to say about that. I’m going to focus in on what my job is and that’s to play good football. I’m not even thinking about anything from the past. I’m thinking about the future.

“The only time I touch a football is if I recover it or if I’m snapping it. Or intercept it. Or causing fumbles. I’m past that. I’m looking forward ti another opportunity that you don’t get often. I’m excited — very, very excited to get this week of preparation going, and get gong in the process.”

Cornerback Kyle Arrington: “Well, I’m sure like a lot of guys have said — and I’m no different — that I don’t have anything to do with that process or that nature when it comes to the footballs. I can’t really comment. … We’re only concerned about the guys in this locker room and winning the football game.”

Arrington on whether or not he can tell if its a deflated football: “Well, considering that typically, historically, we all have the worst hands of anyone on the football field, I don’t care what condition it’s in, as long as we can catch it. … I don’t really handle the ball too often. It’s not really my concern.”

Punter Ryan Allen: “I can’t really shed any further light on the whole ball situation. We’re just focused on what we need to do this week and next week to prepare for Seattle.”

Running back Jonas Gray on Deflategate: “I have no idea. I think that’s the one thing about this entire team. We really don’t know anything about the balls and inflation. I didn’t know they even checked it beforehand. It’s one of those things where we just go out and play the game.”

Read More: 2015 NFL playoffs, Deflategate, Jonas Gray, Kyle Arrington
Why Julian Edelman is always running for his football life 01.15.15 at 10:15 pm ET
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Julian Edelman has made a tradition of leading the Patriots onto the field. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Julian Edelman has made a tradition of leading the Patriots onto the field. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — His run onto the Gillette Stadium field before a game has become a trademark that identifies Julian Edelman as officially ready to play.

Last Saturday, that tradition nearly took out a member of the armed forces as part of the pre-game honor guard that lines up to welcome the Patriots onto the field. Thursday, Edelman was asked if he’s got to be careful with the color guard and people on the field?

“I know, I’€™ve ran through the fireworks like three times,” Edelman said. “I’€™ve hit almost a soldier a couple times; I’€™ve had to apologize about that. So it’€™s definitely something I’€™ve got to work on.

“We’€™ve had some [pyrotechnic] stuff, whatever, and I ran through those once. It was pretty scary.”

But pyrotechnics pale in comparison to the thought of Edelman not making it from college at Kent State to the NFL. Edelman’s college career began at the College of San Mateo, a junior college where he raised eyebrows as a college quarterback.

“I feel like I’€™m pretty self-motivated,” Edelman said. “I’€™ve never really been the top of the class anywhere I’€™ve went per say. I don’€™t think you keep that in your mind. Maybe earlier in my career you did, but around here you’€™re just trying to get all of those questions right for coach Belichick, so you got to keep your mind in other areas. That’€™s really what you do, you just try to focus on our opponent and this week it’€™s the Indianapolis Colts. It’€™s going to be the toughest game of the year.”

Edelman spent a year at the College of San Mateo before transferring to Kent State University. At Kent State, Edelman was a three-year starter at quarterback. His senior year, Edelman was the Golden Flashes’ leading passer, completing 56 percent of his passes, throwing 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

He was also their leading rusher, gaining 1,370 yards on 215 attempts (an average of 6.4 yards per carry) and scoring 13 touchdowns. His total offense broke Joshua Cribbs’s single-season school record, set in 2003. Then came the NFL combine, where he impressed the Patriots enough to be selected in the seventh round in 2009.

On Thursday, Edelman said the drive for his excellence began with some advice from the hardest working man he knows – his dad.

“There’€™s something that my dad always used to say ‘€“ this is while I was training for the combine, I’€™d come in and I’€™d be done training, and he’€™d be like, ‘€˜Did you outwork those guys’€™ and I was like ‘€˜Dad, I was running by myself’€™ [and] he goes, ‘€˜I’€™m not talking about those guys, I’€™m talking about the three kids that are still in high school that are going to be trying to take your job in three [or] four years, five years.’€™ I always to try to think about [that] kind of stuff,” Edelman said. Read the rest of this entry »

Read More: 2015 playoffs, AFC Championship, Indianapolis Colts, Julian Edelman
Stepping up: 5 relatively unheralded Patriots who could hold key to postseason success 01.08.15 at 12:35 am ET
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If teams try and take away Rob Gronkowski this postseason, Tim Wright could be in for more work. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

If teams try and take away Rob Gronkowski this postseason, Tim Wright could be in for more work. (Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

While Saturday’€™s matchup will be a showdown between some of the more high-profile players in the AFC, there are more than a few individuals who are under-the-radar types who will likely play a sizable role in the outcome of the contest. When it comes to New England players who could be asked to rise to the occasion on Saturday –€” and beyond –€” here are our five choices:

Cornerback Kyle Arrington: Before he went down with an injury late in the season, the slot corner had become one of the most durable defensive backs in the league — his streak of 83 consecutive regular-season games played was one of the best on the team, a mark that stretched all the way back to 2009. Because no quarterback wants to risk targeting Darrelle Revis or Brandon Browner on a regular basis, when the Patriots have faced elite passing games — as they will in the postseason –€” this New England pass defense is only as it as its third corner. Regardless of who has been in the game, when the Patriots have been in their sub defense, we’€™ve already seen several really good quarterbacks go after the third or fourth option at corner. While Arrington has demonstrated an ability as one of the better slot corners in the league, he also brings nice depth to the secondary, and could potential cover over any deficiencies that could pop up in the playoffs. Look for him to have a central role this postseason, especially with a handful of intriguing matchups possibly looming. (Denver’€™s Wes Welker? Indy’€™s Reggie Wayne? Seattle’€™s Doug Baldwin? Green Bay’€™s Randall Cobb?)

Guard Dan Connolly: When he’€™s been healthy, Connolly has been one of the most consistent offensive linemen on the New England roster. (Ryan Hannable had an excellent breakdown here of what it’€™s meant to have a healthy Connolly –€” as well as the other four starters — up front this season for the Patriots.) But the veteran has struggled with injury over the course of the season, and has missed three games this year with a variety of issues, including a concussion and an ankle injury. He was not in the lineup for the final two games of the year, and left tackle Nate Solder appeared to struggle at times as a result. A healthy Connolly would go a long way toward stabilizing the offensive line, and provide more time in the pocket for quarterback Tom Brady. If he’€™s not at 100 percent, it could make for a dicey situation for Brady’€™s blind side.

Defensive lineman Sealver Siliga: Siliga has performed very well as a complimentary piece along the defensive line, working alongside the likes of veterans like Vince Wilfork and Alan Branch, becoming an integral part of New England’€™s rotation of defensive linemen. The Utah product is versatile, and just as adept at getting after the passer as he is to two-gapping and holding up offensive linemen to allow linebackers and fellow defensive linemen to make plays. Ever since he came back from designated for return-injured reserve in Week 14 against the Chargers, he’€™s been a steady and consistent presence, playing 61 percent of the defensive snaps over the last three weeks. Look for that role to continue to expand going forward into the postseason.

Special teamer Matthew Slater: This isn’€™t so much Slater, but more of a nod to special teams as a whole. (From this viewpoint, using the special teams captain only seems fitting.) As a grouping, they’€™ve managed to distinguish themselves as one of the best and most impactful group of special teamers in the league. Every week, there’€™s some sort of momentum-changing play. Whether it’€™s been a blocked field-goal attempt, blocked punt, punter kick return or a big coverage tackle, they have become a sizable part of New England’€™s success, and a big reason the Patriots have gotten as far as they have this year. It’€™s not just the potential high-impact plays, but the work of grunts like Nate Ebner, Brandon Bolden and Tavon Wilson that has continued to allow New England the success that it has had on special teams.

Tight end Tim Wright: Wright has distinguished himself as the most dependable pass-catcher in recent Patriots’€™ history, having caught 79 percent of the passes that were sent his way over the course of the season — a high for any offensive skill position player who was targeted at least 20 times in a single season. The tight end broke the previous mark of 77 percent, set by five different pass catchers, most recently Danny Woodhead (who caught 34 of 44 passes in 2010). Of course, that sure-handed skill is nothing new for Wright, who now has a two-year total as a pro (with the Buccaneers and Patriots) of 73 percent, a remarkable total for any receiver. With the focus of opposing defenses likely to be on fellow tight end Rob Gronkowski, Wright will almost surely have his opportunities in the passing game.

Read More: 2015 playoffs, Dan Connolly, Kyle Arrington, Matthew Slater
Class in class: Matthew Slater says Ravens ‘really play the game the right way’ 01.07.15 at 2:30 pm ET
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Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh have met several times in the past. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh have met several times in the past. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

FOXBORO — For all the hyped-up feuding between Terrell Suggs and Tom Brady and the trash-talking of Steve Smith, Matthew Slater provides the other end of the spectrum in the great rivalry the Patriots and Ravens have shared in the last six years.

Respect. And for Slater, the mutual respect starts with the head coaches and front offices, namely Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh.

On Wednesday, Slater, who has seen all three previous playoff meetings between the two since Jan. 2010, characterized the rivalry.

“It’€™s a special matchup,” Slater said. “I think that organization and what they do there, they really play the game the right way. They coach it the right way. Organizationally, they have good leadership. Obviously their coach is one of the better coaches in this league and we feel strongly about our program over here. So, you have two programs that try to approach this game and play it a certain way and as a result you get a physical, well-played football game usually when these two teams matchup. It’€™s going to be a battle. It always has been. We have to get ourselves ready for the challenge.

And how, exactly, is ‘playing the right way’ defined?

“I think playing disciplined, playing together, playing hard; preparation,” Slater added. “You can tell when teams are prepared. I think they do all of those things. It starts at the top obviously and it goes on down through the ranks. They certainly have all those attributes as a football team.”

For Slater, he and the Patriots will appreciate the rivalry and the game Saturday if they make a big play early on special teams against another team that takes pride in its own special teams.

“We feel it’€™s important that we go out and set the tone,” Slater said. “Obviously we’€™re the first play of the game. I think it’€™s important in a game like this where the teams are so evenly matched, if you can gain an edge in that third phase, it can make a huge difference. I think if we can go out and set the tone early, it would be big for us. We know they’€™re going to be ready to go. We know Jacoby is going to be ready to go. We have to match their intensity and hopefully come out and start well.

Read More: 2015 playoffs, Baltimore Ravens, Matthew Slater, New England Patriots
Why containing Jacoby Jones Saturday is ‘priority No. 1′ for Matthew Slater, Patriots at 2:17 pm ET
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FOXBORO — Matthew Slater knows explosive game-changing players when he sees them. So does Bill Belichick.

For both, the special teams weapon known as Jacoby Jones will be a priority when it comes to game-planning Saturday night against the Ravens.

Jones has returned three kickoffs in his career for 108 yards and a touchdown. One came two years ago in the second half of Super Bowl XLVII that helped the Ravens build a big lead and eventually hold on for a world championship win over the San Francisco 49ers.

Slater, the special teams captain, was asked if Jones has the rare ability to change a game all by himself and if that worries the Patriots special teams unit.

“Without question,” Slater said. “There’s no other combo returner in the league like him. He poses a lot of problems with his size and speed. You look across the board, there’s not too many guys like that. And anytime he touches the ball we have to have a sense of urgency because he can hit a home run at anytime. So he is definitely priority number one. We’ve got to do a good job with him.”

Like Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh comes from a special teams background. Slater sees an extremely high level of execution in the Ravens’ special teams unit ever since Harbaugh took over in 2008.

“I think not only this season but over the course of my career playing against these guys, they’re one of the better coached, more disciplined, more physical units that we will see over the course of the season,” Slater said. “And it’s no different this year. These guys play the game the right way. You can tell they’re well-coached. You can tell they take a lot of pride in what they do over there and certainly they have some players that are special. They are a great unit.”

What was clear Wednesday in listening to Slater is the urgency with which the Patriots are treating their preparations this week.

“It means everything. When it comes down to all the work that we’ve put in since the offseason to get to this point. This is why you play the game,” Slater said. “I truly believe this is the ultimate team sport. You work so hard as a team to get to this point in the season and you can’t take it for granted. There are eight teams left. We’re really fortunate to be in the position we’re in and hopefully we can do everything we can to take advantage of our opportunity.”

Read More: 2015 playoffs, Baltimore Ravens, Jacoby Jones, Matthew Slater



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