FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Derrick Martin has built a championship career out of playing on special teams.
The seven-year veteran earned Super Bowl rings the past two seasons — first with the Green Bay Packers and then with the New York Giants. Now he has a shot at a third straight title with the New England Patriots.
He offers no apologies for making his mark on special teams rather than on the higher profile offensive or defensive units.
“You look for guys to step in and contribute,” Martin said Wednesday of special teams. “Don’t be out there just because you have to, but take it as a serious job, make sure you’re making the plays that you’re supposed to make.”
The Patriots (8-3) have made some big ones during their five-game winning streak with touchdowns on a 104-yard kickoff return by Devin McCourty, a 68-yard punt return by Julian Edelman and a 22-yard fumble return by Edelman after McCourty jarred the ball loose on a kickoff return.
Plays like that can energize the Patriots and deflate their opponents.
“You feed off of it,” Martin said. “When you see somebody else making a play, you’re like, ‘Man, it’s probably my turn to make that play,’ and everybody’s competing to make that play, but they’re all doing their job. So everybody’s working well as a team.”
His next chance comes Sunday in Miami where a win would give the Patriots their fourth straight AFC East title. The Dolphins (5-6) also have made some big plays on special teams with Marcus Thigpen scoring on a 72-yard punt return and a 96-yard kickoff return this season.
“It’s not going to be an easy task going against them, and it’s not going to be easy for them going against us,” said Marlon Moore, Miami’s second-leading tackler on special teams. “It’s going to be a long day on both sides of the ball for special teams, and that’s going to be a big difference in the game.”
In their last two games, the Dolphins have allowed touchdowns on a 79-yard punt return and a 98-yard kickoff return. But Miami’s special teams have improved since the 2010 season when they were especially poor against New England.
In two games against the Patriots that season, the Dolphins allowed three special teams touchdowns, one each on a punt and kickoff return, as well as a blocked field goal. Another blocked field goal set up a touchdown two plays later.
If the Patriots can keep making big plays — and scoring touchdowns — on special teams it will result from the seasonlong focus on the importance of that phase.
“Our hard work and preparation throughout the week is starting to show itself in the games,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said. “We haven’t changed anything. We just continue to approach things the same way we always have and sometimes you’re fortunate enough for things to happen in your favor, the ball to bounce the right way in your favor.
“And we’ve been able to have that the last two weeks.”
In a 59-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts, Edelman’s punt return for a touchdown and the extra point tied the game 14-14 and the Patriots never trailed again. Four days later, on Thanksgiving night, McCourty’s hit on kickoff returner Joe McKnight knocked the ball into the air and Edelman caught it and ran in for a touchdown that gave the Patriots a 28-0 lead in their 49-19 win.
McCourty was chosen for the Pro Bowl as a rookie in 2010 and anchors the secondary at safety after shifting from cornerback after the sixth game. He takes his special teams responsibilities just as seriously.
“You can make a lot of big plays on special teams and I’m on a couple of them,” McCourty said. “It’s key for me to do my role on that special team and try to make plays as well.”
Scoring on special teams also can give the offense more time on the sideline to rest and plan. If a player returns a punt or kickoff for a touchdown, Tom Brady can watch his defense go right back out on the field.
“It’s a great thing to happen for a team,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate the last few weeks. I don’t think there’s really an advantage for our offense sitting over there. I’d prefer to be out there playing. But if we’re scoring points, that’s a great thing.”
Making contributions on special teams is important for players, whether they score or not. It can lead to long careers they wouldn’t have if they had to get by only on their offensive or defensive talents.
Slater has just one reception in five seasons with the Patriots but leads the team with 14 special teams tackles and has 72 in his five pro seasons, all with New England. Martin has five in three games with the Patriots and 62 in his career that began with Baltimore in 2006.
“We’re a very close knit group of guys,” Slater said. “We understand how we’re going to keep jobs in this league and we take a lot of pride in what we’re doing.”
Especially when the emphasis the Patriots put on special teams leads to big plays and victories.
“You’re not counting on the special team to score every game. It’s just not realistic for that to happen,” Slater said. “But when it does happen, it brings a huge momentum swing to the game. In the case of the last two weeks, it’s been huge for us.”
And the teams that don’t stress special teams as much?
“Those are usually teams,” Martin said, “that are losing.”