From afar, Mike Tomlin has had the utmost respect for the Patriots during Bill Belichick's two-plus decade run as New England's coach. Sunday will mark the 12th time that Tomlin will match wits with Belichick, who is hoping to avoid an 0-2 start following the Patriots' Week 1 loss to the Dolphins. The Steelers, meanwhile, are hoping to get to 2-0 after upsetting the Bengals this past Sunday in overtime.
While Sunday's game may not have the same buildup as previous Steelers-Patriots matchups, Tomlin said that his focus when facing the Patriots has never been about compelling storylines, in particular ones centered on quarterbacks Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger.
"That might have been your collective focus, but it wasn't ours like I've mentioned," Tomlin said. "They have a mode of operation. They attack you in all three phases. They play stingy defense. They keep the point totals down. They play great in situations. They win possession downs. They play the field-position game and special teams."
Tomlin specifically made reference to the Patriots' special teams stalwart who has collected 10 Pro Bowl and two All-Pro nods during his 15-year career.
"Matt Slater is a legendary special teams player," Tomlin said. "I used to say legendary of this generation. I no longer include of this generation. He's just a legendary special teams player. And so I'd be disrespectful to those two phases if I allow that to be the narrative within our ranks in preparation for this game. So that has never been the case for us."
The son of Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jackie Slater, Matthew Slater has been a constant force on New England's special teams units since joining the team in 2008. Along with his tangible contributions, Slater has also used his intangible skills to help the Patriots this season. During a training camp practice this summer, Slater referenced a punt protection New England used during a 2012 game against the Seahawks to help solve an alignment issue.
"I learned from being around guys like Tom the importance of logging every experience on the field," Slater recently told the Boston Herald. "And it's something my dad did. So stuff comes up all the time, and it's great at this stage of my career to always have a frame of reference."
Slater is one of the remaining players from the Patriots' second dynasty that brought three more Lombardi Trophies to Foxborough. Another Patriots holdover from the franchise's dynasty years is defensive back Devin McCourty. Together, Slater and McCourty have continued the "Patriot Way" mentality that, in Slater's words, is about people and how the Patriots have conducted themselves inside and outside the facility.
"Those guys, they lead by example," inside linebackers coach Jerod Mayo recently said of Slater and McCourty. "They always have. I would say over the last few years, though, they've both become very vocal. And that was because there was a lack of that voice. They've done a great job bridging that gap. I'm always excited to see when those guys really take charge."
Slater's impact certainly isn't lost on Tomlin, who made it a point to highlight both Slater as well as the special teams component of Sunday's matchup.