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Allen Park — The Lions' early field-goal struggles overshadowed what has been an otherwise successful special teams unit, largely because of punter Sam Martin.

Through four games, Martin ranks second in the NFL in gross punting with a 50.1-yard average and 10th in net punting, averaging 42.3 yards.

Martin has also excelled on kickoffs with touchbacks on 14 of his 18 kicks. The longest kickoff return the Lions allowed was a 32-yarder last week to the Jets' Saalim Hakim.

"Sam does a great job in terms of what he does; don't underscore that," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Monday. "I know I've talked about that in previous weeks. His kicking off where it gives the teams very little opportunity to return makes a huge difference for us. It kind of takes a little bit of that pressure off those coverage teams, then also what he's been able to do in terms of punting."

The Lions were ravaged by injuries the first quarter of the season, and many of the players who've missed time are key special teams contributors, including running back Montell Owens, defensive back Don Carey, linebacker Travis Lewis and cornerbacks Bill Bentley and Nevin Lawson, who are both on injured reserve.

Martin has also done well in some critical situations, including a fourth-quarter punt in last Sunday's win over the Jets. The Lions led 24-17 with 4:43 remaining, and Martin hit a 55-yarder that pinned New York at the 16 after Walt Powell called a fair catch.

"When we needed a great punt, Sam was able to get it for us and get it down the field without a return to give our guys good field position to work with," Caldwell said.

Martin said his goal is to finish the season in the top five in net and gross punting, but he understands fulfilling his situational duties on each punt is more important than statistics.

Not much changed for Martin as he prepared for his second NFL season. As a rookie, he learned how to stay mentally and physically ready and that the long season takes a toll on his kicking leg.

In the exhibition season, the Lions had their placekickers handle kickoffs to save Martin's leg, and he thinks he'll appreciate the consideration later in the season.

One thing that helped him this offseason was working with former Lions kicker Jason Hanson. During training camp, Hanson helped Martin fine-tune his kickoff technique.

"A couple little things I worked on with Hanson that have helped me a lot, body position and swing plane," Martin said.

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

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