Friday, October 11, 2013
Snap to kick, a look at Detroit's punting plan
By Michael Rothstein
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- It’s fourth down. The Lions had another drive result in no points and not a ton of movement. Sam Martin runs on the field.
This is how it starts.
Martin, the rookie fifth-round pick of the Lions, was one of two punters taken in April’s NFL draft. Thus far, he’s been a worthwhile investment for the team as he is second in average yards a punt (49.5) and sixth in net yards a punt (42.1).
He’d be higher, too, but there have been times in games where his specified instructions have been to punt it through the end zone.
It hasn't taken long for rookie Sam Martin to make his mark, averaging 49.5 yards per punt.
But when Martin is called on, he tries to be one of the, if not the, first player on the field in a fourth-down situation. He wants to find his spot, his comfort zone, before the offensive line sets up.
Then he looks for his spot.
“I find a point that I’m aiming for,” Martin said. “Whether I’m going left or right with it. I take a deep breath, take a deep breath every time and just wait for the snap.”
As he waits, long-snapper Don Muhlbach, a Pro Bowler last year, and the rest of the Lions' protectors and gunners run onto the field and set up.
Muhlbach will quickly glance back to make sure he is aligned correctly with Martin. He then won’t see him again until after the play is over.
“I just make sure he’s straight behind me,” said Muhlbach, Detroit’s long-snapper since 2004. “I don’t see him really. I’m a blind snapper. Some guys look, some guys don’t. I don’t look.
“I stopped looking in college and ever since.”
This took some repetition, especially with a rookie. Muhlbach said there was an adjustment period during organized team activities after the draft where the snapper and punter figured out the best process to ensure success.
By training camp, they were set -- especially because by then they had two things to work on every day. That’s it, just punting and field goals along with kicker David Akers. Muhlbach snaps field goals and Martin holds.
So the monotony led to a fairly fast comfort level.
The biggest adjustment for Muhlbach was where Martin wanted to receive the ball on the snap. Every punter, due to style, height and comfort, prefers it in different spaces.
“Some guys are taller, some guys are shorter,” Muhlbach said. “He’s probably the shortest punter I’ve had so it’s a little bit different. [Nick] Harris, he liked it at the waist. Ben Graham was here and he liked it up chest-high and he was 6-6, so you just have to find a level.
“Sam is the most unpicky person ever, which makes my job really easy. Also, he’s really good. He just likes it somewhere around the belt, like the stomach.”
As Muhlbach sets, Martin will find his spot and also check the defensive front. He’ll read where pressure is likely coming from, where a player might be able to get a jump off the edge to try and disrupt the rhythm he started to pick up when he began punting in college at Appalachian State.
Then the ball is snapped.
“It is so quick,” Martin said. “Our snap-to-kick is like 1.8, 1.9 seconds, which is pretty much as fast as it gets. We have a pretty quick operation time so as far as that goes, all I’m seeing is the ball.
“I’m catching it, watching it and seeing it through.”
Usually, Martin won’t think. When he does, his thought process almost compares to a golfer. Don’t try and kill every punt. Don’t put everything into every kick. Trust your process. Trust your swing.
This was Martin’s issue in the season opener against Minnesota, the only time he’s averaged under 50 yards a punt gross average. He was coming across the ball instead of kicking through it. He was rushing. He was, as a rookie, trying to kill the thing every time.
After that game he calmed down. Remembered his rhythm.
“If I have any thoughts with it, it is to be easy with it,” Martin said. “Sometimes I will try killing it. I will swing too hard that will sometimes, when I try really swinging hard, the percentage goes down but if I connect, it’s a bomb. It’s like, I get carried away with that.
“What I’ve been doing lately is I’ve been hitting my 75, 80 percent ball and being smooth with it. You get a lot more consistency with that.”
A lot more production, too. Martin holds the Lions’ single-game net punting average record of 50.2 yards, set against Arizona in Week 2.
It is all repetition, though. All comfort -- and that’s something that can continue to expand as Muhlbach and Martin, practice after practice, continue to work on their process.
“You find a stability in routine, I guess is the way to say that,” Muhlbach said. “It is monotonous, but that’s our job.”