FOXBORO, Mass. — Standing just 2 yards from the end zone on the opening possession of Sunday’s win over the Miami Dolphins, the New England Patriots trotted out their jumbo package.
On came tight ends Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo, fullback James Develin, running back Sony Michel and… Matthew Slater?
That’s right, Matthew Slater.
Slater, who’s played almost exclusively on special teams throughout his NFL career, logged four snaps as an extra goal-line blocker against the Dolphins. The 34-year-old was on the field for Sony Michel’s 1-yard touchdown plunge in the first quarter and for Tom Brady’s QB-sneak score late in the third.
“I try to do my best Jackie Slater impersonation there,” Slater said with a smile Wednesday, referring to his father, the Hall of Fame offensive tackle. “I get to live my dream out of being a blocking guy like my dad was. I’ve always enjoyed doing that. If the team asks you to do something, you try to step up and do it and help the team in order (for us) to be successful. I always get a kick out of that when I get a chance to do it.”
Though he’s listed as a wide receiver, Slater rarely sees the field on offense outside of kneeldown situations. During training camp this summer, he spent his days running through specially tailored kick coverage drills rather than catching passes and running routes with his fellow wideouts.
Slater does have some experience in the role he filled Sunday, however. The Patriots used him there on two snaps against the Green Bay Packers last season and two more against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2017.
Following Rob Gronkowski’s retirement and with Ben Watson currently suspended, the Patriots are carrying just two tight ends on their 53-man roster. That means bringing in a body from another position group for their goal-line package, and head coach Bill Belichick believed Slater was best-suited for the job.
“Matt’s done that before, and it just really depends on what we’re trying to do and what the options are,” Belichick said Wednesday. “We have a couple of receivers that are fairly new to the team in terms of being on the field like with Antonio (Brown) and Josh (Gordon). We have other receivers like Gunner (Olszewski) and Phil (Dorsett) that aren’t the biggest guys, physically, in terms of putting them on the goal line or dealing with things like that. It’s really a combination of what you’re asking a player to do, what the options are.
“Again, in Matt’s case, he’s done it before in other years and in some cases when we haven’t used him, he’s been the backup, like when we’ve had three tight ends or we use an offensive lineman as a tight end and use two tight ends. He was a backup in those situations, so he has the most experience doing that.”
Slater’s effectiveness as a blocker can be debated — he got bowled over by cornerback Eric Rowe on Michel’s touchdown — but the seven-time Pro Bowler said he’s happy to help the team in any way possible.
“I think that was pretty well-defined early in the week considering what our tight end situation looks like right now,” said Slater, who famously filled in at safety for New England back in 2011. “We only had two tight ends active in the game. It’ll change week to week depending on the team we’re playing, whatever the game plan is. They do a good job of communicating, and (tight ends coach) Nick Caley does a great job of helping me get ready for those roles when my number’s called.”
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images