Patriots’ Special Teams Struggles Played Major Role in Loss But Shouldn’t Be Cause for Concern

Frank Gore, Dont'a HightowerFOXBORO, Mass. — Matthew Slater is not making excuses. He knows the Patriots’ special teams struggled Sunday night, maybe even costing the team a win. But he’s not letting one sluggish performance shake his confidence.

“Disappointed,” Slater said, shaking his head in frustration. “You can’t make excuses in this league, and I feel like we didn’t hold up our end of the bargain.”

The Patriots, who have excelled on special teams all season, had some difficulty defending a speedy and agile 49ers unit. And it wasn’t just LaMichael James‘ 62-yard kick return late in the fourth quarter that gave New England trouble. Special teams also allowed a fake punt to go for a big first-down conversion. Players were called for three penalties on Patriots’ returns, costing 60 yards in field position. New England was forced to start two drives inside the 10-yard line.

As special teams captain, Slater took full responsibility for the Patriots’ struggles Sunday night, even literally pointing a finger at himself to take blame after the loss. Despite the frustration, the Patriots said they saw the loss as an important lesson and an opportunity to get better.

“[This is] definitely a chance to go back to the drawing board and refocus, and go back to the fundamentals. Go back to our rules,” Slater said. “We have a good group, and I’m confident in the group that we have.”

As for James’ momentum-swinging 62-yard kickoff return, which helped the 49ers reclaim the lead after the Patriots’ ferocious 28-point comeback, Slater was well aware of just how big the play really was.

“Huge,” Slater said. “Momentum seemed to be in our favor, with however many unanswered points, and then we gave it right back to them. It was definitely disappointing.”

Between the big return, the fake punt and the penalties, such a combination of errors would normally be cause for concern.

But with the focus and resolve of this special teams unit, the letdown shouldn’t be seen as anything more than a quick reality check.

Special teams has helped carry the load on a number of occasions already this season, scoring touchdowns, forcing turnovers and establishing good field position on both sides of the ball. Maybe all that confidence was getting to the players’ heads, and a quick dose of reality, by way of the 49ers, is exactly what they needed in preparation of the upcoming playoff run.

Whatever the reasoning behind the letdown, a repeat performance shouldn’t be expected anytime soon. The Patriots still boast one of the best special teams in all of football, and that’s not going to change. If anything, this is only going to motivate these players to be even better going forward — just in time for when the games matter most.

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

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