Practice makes perfect for Patriots punt unit

FOXBOROUGH — A certain NFL Network anchor — that’s you, Rich Eisen — is trying to start a movement to get people to realize that punters are people, too, a humorous way to give a bit of love to some of the more overlooked players in NFL games.

New England has a unique punter. For starters, Zoltan Mesko came to the Patriots with a cult-like following from his days at Michigan. Mesko is also a Romanian immigrant who is 6 feet 5 inches and has been called by the Wall Street Journal “the most interesting man in the NFL.”

But all that aside, Mesko is pretty darn good, and has shown improvement in the early stages of his third season.

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According to the football metrics site, Mesko has had just two of his 16 punts returned, a league-best average of 12.5 percent. He also has had 10 of his kicks downed inside the 20-yard line.

That last part he can’t do alone. Mesko needs some help from his friends, primarily gunners Matthew Slater and Marquice Cole.

On Sunday in Buffalo, Slater and Cole had plays in the first half that showed off skills they’ve been working on with Mesko and special teams coach Scott O’Brien.

In the first quarter, with the Patriots stalled at the Buffalo 41, Mesko punted, and returner Leodis McKelvin let the ball go over his head. Slater caught it at the 6.

Five plays later, Buffalo’s drive stalled and it had to punt the ball back to the Patriots.

In the second quarter, McKelvin again let a punt go; it bounced at about the 6 and Cole batted it away from the goal line. Slater immediately downed it at the 2, and pointed to Cole for a job well done.

On the second play of the possession, Devin McCourty got his first of two interceptions on the day.

“It’s something that we’ve worked very hard on, with Zoltan and Marquice and myself, so it’s kind of nice to have it pay off in a game,” Slater said. “Those type of situations don’t come very often but we were able to take advantage of them and give the defense some good field.

“Those plays are huge as far as momentum is concerned. It’s hard for a team to drive 90-plus yards, and the defense, as well as they were playing, it was fun to contribute to that win.”

Bill Belichick, a former special teams coach, has a great deal of respect for good play in that phase of the game and has always emphasized that it is as important as offense and defense, so the work of Mesko, Slater, and Cole did not go unnoticed by him.

“It starts with good punting,” said Belichick. “That’s No. 1, is to give those guys a chance to down the ball, to put it up high enough and to put it in a place where they have a chance to get it.

“The technique of downing it, whether it’s on Matt’s play, where McKelvin ran out of the way and gave him a chance to catch it or on Cole’s play where the ball hit pretty far in front of him, it hit outside the 5-yard line and bounced so he set the picket fence on the goal line.

“There are different techniques depending on where the gunner or the coverage guy is on the play, where the ball hits. But we work hard on that because you have to read the returner and see whether or not he’s going to catch the ball.”

If the returner does catch the ball, there has to be someone who can deal with him, Belichick said. There are rules that have to be followed — even as the players are running full speed toward the returner, they have to make a snap decision on what’s going to happen in that situation and how they best can handle it.

Mesko’s third punt, at the end of the Patriots’ first drive of the third quarter, was fair caught by McKelvin at the Buffalo 17.

Belichick said it is unusual to have all three instances in the same game — a chance for someone on the coverage team to catch the ball, a chance to down the ball so deep, and a fair catch by the receiving team.

“It’s something we work on all year, starting at training camp and work on all the way through the season,” Belichick said. “Those are all coaching points that we talk about, how to play those, but they were done very well.”

Slater, who was named to the Pro Bowl last year for the first time thanks to his skills as a special teamer, took pride in the plays.

“We’ve worked really hard to prepare ourselves for that situation,” he said. “Zoltan has been on us to try and go down there and execute that and he’s challenged us and it’s something we practice every week. So it’s fulfilling to have it pay off in games.”

Does Slater challenge Mesko to make sure he puts enough air under the ball for his teammates to make those plays?

“I don’t know anything about punting, so I’m not going to try to tell Zoltan how to kick it,” Slater said, laughing. “But I know he does a good job at what he does, so whatever he tells me he’s going to do, I just go along with it.”