Slater fumbled kickoff, grasped his responsibility
FOXBOROUGH - Kickoff returner Matthew Slater could have done what he was supposed to do midway through the third quarter. He could have run.
Slater emerged from the team's training room after the Patriots' sloppy 33-10 loss to the Steelers yesterday, and was quickly engulfed, much like he was by the Steelers' coverage team on a costly muffed third-quarter kickoff that was a turning point in the game.
The 23-year-old Slater could have dodged the tough questions like some of his other, older teammates elected to.
To his credit, he didn't.
"I feel like I cost my team the game," the rookie from UCLA said in a hushed tone. "There is no excuse for it. You have to field the ball first, and I didn't do my job. It's as simple as that."
The muff came after the Steelers had taken their first lead of the game, 13-10, on a Jeff Reed 25-yard field goal with 5:39 remaining in the third quarter. On the ensuing kickoff, Slater was the primary returner, subbing for Ellis Hobbs, who was battling cramps and throwing up on the sideline.
The ball caromed off Slater's chest, he couldn't gather it in, and Steelers linebacker Keyaron Fox pounced on it at the 8-yard line. Two plays later, the Steelers led, 20-10.
Slater said he saw the ball - "there are no excuses" - and it was simply a matter of handling it.
"I feel like I let the team down; you can't give up the ball inside the 10 or 5," he said.
In retrospect, given the rainy conditions, perhaps the Patriots' coaching staff should have considered a more experienced option. Running back Kevin Faulk, for example, ended up taking the next kickoff.
Asked if there was a thought along those lines, coach Bill Belichick said Slater has been the top backup returner all season. Entering yesterday's game, Hobbs had taken 34 of the team's 45 returns, Slater nine. Faulk (1) and receiver Wes Welker (1) had the others.
Hobbs, however, had been in and out on the Steelers' 14-play drive that preceded Slater's muff, replaced by Mike Richardson because of cramping.
"I just got sick a little bit," Hobbs explained. "I tried to make it happen, man, but sometimes your body won't allow you to."
While Slater's miscue was decisive - Fox felt the Steelers "rallied off that" - it was far from the only factor in the Patriots' loss.
The NFL's least-penalized team entering yesterday's action, the Patriots were flagged for five infractions in the first half - a stretch in which they couldn't capitalize on several opportunities and found themselves locked in an unsatisfying 10-10 tie at the break. Receiver Sam Aiken, who was signed this offseason as a free agent mainly for his special teams play, was penalized twice in the kicking game.
Offensively, the Patriots were just 1 of 13 on third down, their worst output of the season. They entered the day ranked 10th in the NFL, converting 44 percent of the time.
Receiver Randy Moss uncharacteristically dropped two passes, one of which would have resulted in a second-quarter touchdown.
Left tackle Matt Light couldn't handle Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison on two third-quarter rushes, both of which resulted in strip-sacks of quarterback Matt Cassel recovered by the Steelers.
Players often talk about "Patriots football" - a brand of play that features smart decisions on the field and sideline, mastery in the critical situations, and limiting mistakes. That wasn't what was on display throughout yesterday's game, but especially in the second half with Slater's muff, two Cassel strip-sacks, and two interceptions.
In all, the Patriots lost three fumbles, Cassel was intercepted two times, and he was sacked five times. The Steelers also converted 50 percent of their third-down chances.
"We try to pride ourselves on being a fundamentally sound football team, [but] when you have mistakes like we made out there, it's just not good football," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "That was one of the first games I have been involved in where it seemed like the ball was on the ground so much."
Given the conditions, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin knew that would be crucial, and he relayed a message that he delivered to his players the night before the game, saying "more than anything you've got to understand that when you're toting the ball, you're carrying our livelihoods."
As the Patriots discovered yesterday, with Slater's muff reflecting their overall performance, it can be a sudden death when the football is handled so carelessly.
Mike Reiss can be reached at email@example.com.