Lions specialists keep things in sync

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Snap, hold, kick.

In theory, it's a simple enough process, but in reality, there are any number of things that can go wrong with a field-goal attempt.

On an NFL special-teams unit, having one thing go wrong can be the difference between making or missing a field goal — and ultimately, winning or losing a game.

The Lions saw that minuscule margin of error last season, with the place-kicking job in flux after rookie Nate Freese and Alex Henery struggled through the first five games. Freese went 3-of-7 and Henery just 1-of-5 on field goals. Even Matt Prater, the current Lions kicker, went 1-for-3 in his first game before making 20 of his last 23 last season.

For two decades, the Lions had consistency, with kicker Jason Hanson leading the way. Normally for specialists, it's a relatively obscure existence, trying to find ways in practice to busy themselves while the rest of the team works through plays.

That is, until something goes wrong — like last year.

Since Hanson's retirement, the consistency has been lacking, but the current specialists — Prater, 12th-year long-snapper Don Muhlbach and third-year punter Sam Martin — are turning things around. In their second season together, they've solidified the loose ends from the past two years.

"Before that, we never had an issue. For years, it was 'You three, go in the corner and we'll call you when we need you,'" said Muhlbach, who is starting his 12th season. "We all do our thing and whenever they need us, it's time for us to go."

Martin is regarded as one of the best young punters in the league and Muhlbach, 34, has been one of the best at his position for years. Prater signed a new three-year, $9 million deal in the offseason. The three also have built a strong bond among themselves, both on and off the field, a connection that has helped them become one of the strongest units on the team.

"We have a great work relationship and a great friendship," Martin said. "When we're here, we have a lot of downtime because of the nature of our job where we're just hanging out. You naturally become close and all three of us mesh really well."

Punter Sam Martin had only five touchbacks last season.

They've developed that cohesiveness through a little downtime during training camp, after constant work last season to get the basics down. While they don't have much film to review after games and don't participate in all the drills and grind that the other position players do, their rule is no less important.

While the other players were going through workouts during Monday's practice at Dearborn Edsel Ford High School, the specialists were working on one-handed catches on the sidelines. Tuesday, Muhlbach was working with Martin to prepare for a rare scenario.

"We were working on a bad-snap drill, where you never know," Martin said. "He's a wannabe kicker in a snapper's body. He's into the kicking thing; he just happens to be a little too big for it."

While they have their share of downtime in practice, they're all business when it comes to kicking and punting. Off the field, they get to flash their unique personalities.

Last year, they dressed in shorts and Christmas vests and shorts as a gag for their NFL counterparts.

"We had a crazy idea to make Christmas cards and send them out to the 31 specialists to wish them a Merry Christmas," Martin said. "One person in the group axed it so we just decided to put them on social media and got a few laughs."

Coach Jim Caldwell noted the closeness of the trio and highlighted their importance to the rest of the team.

"The camaraderie is good. They spend so much time with one another; it's a very small, close, tight-knit group, but then they're also very good teammates as well," Caldwell said. "They aren't an isolated group at all, but they work so much together, they spend so much time together, the group is so small that you can anticipate and expect there will be quite a bit of cohesion going on in that meeting room."

But sometimes, after the work in the meeting room is done, there's more downtime, including playing cards and treatments, while the other position groups are still working.

It wasn't always that easy, especially during the lean times early last season. But when Muhlbach and Martin heard that Prater was coming to Detroit after being released by the Broncos, they knew the struggles would be over.

"I was really excited because he's in year nine and I've known about him since I was in high school. I've known the name and always watched him on TV; he's one of the best and broke records and was Pro Bowl-type guy," Martin said. "I was excited not only to see the best, but to have the best be part of our team. I didn't know much about him as a person but that worked out."

Muhlbach remembered him from 2006, when Prater was an undrafted free-agent rookie. With Hanson still in his heyday, there was little chance that Prater would win the job, but the experience was critical in his development.

Long-snapper Don Muhlbach is in his 11th season with the Lions.

"We still had Hanson at that time and I was super happy for him when he got picked up down the road and he got picked up in Denver and we're lucky to get him back here," Muhlbach said. "I was happy because I knew him and knew his leg wouldn't be an issue. We needed help then so I'm glad he was available."

Things are coming full circle, with rookie kicker Kyle Brindza (Canton/Plymouth High) learning the craft from Prater, with help from Martin and Muhlbach, much like Prater did from Hanson.

It's a kind of internship that young kickers go through, just as Martin did a couple years ago.

The bond shows through and makes a welcoming atmosphere for Brindza, as well as a connection with the rest of the team.

"We haven't even been with Prater a whole year and Brindza was joking the other day, saying if he had to guess, he would have thought we had been a unit for 10 years," Martin said. "That's just a representation of how close we are and how hard we work together."