Standing a few inches from the back of the Ravens' end zone Thursday night, punter Sam Koch looked the football into his waiting hands before calmly booting a towering punt across midfield.
The 59-yard punt wasn't a particularly memorable play in the Ravens' 31-17 preseason loss to the St. Louis Rams. But his leg strength, mechanics and poise in the face of an incoming rush were just what the Ravens have come to expect from the former Pro Bowl alternate.
"Every year, he makes improvement," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's more consistent than ever. It seems like he gets stronger every year. One thing that we're trying to work on with Sam is to be as consistent as he can possibly be [and] try to have as many no bad punt games as he can."
Koch, 30, has rarely been responsible for mishaps during his seven years with the Ravens since being drafted in the sixth round out of Nebraska.
Reliable and sturdy, the 6-foot-1, 218-pound Koch has never missed a game and has a career gross average of 44.2 yards and 38.2 net yards per punt, both ranking first in franchise history.
Despite his results, Koch is essentially blocked from making the Pro Bowl by the presence of Oakland Raiders punter Shane Lechler, a nine-time All-Pro who averaged 50.8 yards last season.
Plus, Koch has become more of a directional punter who sacrifices maximum distance for accurate placement.
"I want to be a Pro Bowler, but doing so much directional stuff and trying to put it in position for our gunners to attack the ball, it's tough," Koch said. "There's the mathematics and geometry of it. If I put it two or three yards off the sideline instead of down the middle of the field, I'm losing a good two, three, four yards per punt.
"That makes it tough, but it's about what I can do for my team. That means a lot more to me. As long as I help the team win by hitting the ball the way I need to rather than to satisfy myself, that's what's really important."
Koch has a franchise record 170 career punts inside the 20-yard line. He ranks third in the NFL in that category since 2006.
Last year, 21 of Koch's punts were downed inside the 20-yard line. He had nine touchbacks and a long of 63 yards.
"I told Sam, how you make it in this league for a long time is you either adapt or you die," former Ravens kicker Matt Stover said. "So, you become a student of the game. Sam didn't come in the league with a rugby punt, but he added that and changed his grip on the ball and his steps. He wasn't that good of a directional punter at first, but he is now.
"Once you think you know it all and think you're all that, that's when you get complacent and, 'Oh man, here it comes.' He's a good teammate off the field and what you consider a model player."
Although Koch had a career-high and franchise-record 46.5 average last season, the Ravens faltered in punt coverage as they allowed two returns for scores. Opponents averaged 11.9 yards per punt return, surrendering way too much field position.
Between players getting out of their coverage lanes and Koch not always delivering in the hang-time department, it was a step back for the punt team.
"It all starts with me," Koch said. "I've got to put it in a position where our guys think it's going so they can all release where they're supposed to. I've put more focus on getting rid of the ball and having every ball go 45-plus with good hangtime for less of a return. We've all got to contain our gaps, go down the field and make a tackle."
That's something that Koch is capable of — and willing to do.
He prevented the Atlanta Falcons from returning one of his punts for a touchdown when he delivered a solid tackle on Dominique Franks in the preseason opener.
As a former high school fullback and linebacker in Nebraska., Koch is bigger and stronger than most punters. That doesn't change his status in the locker room, though.
"The guys on the team know that I'm a bigger punter, but I'm still just a punter," he said with a laugh. "I still have that tag behind my name, but they've seen me tackle and they do appreciate that. They like that."
A major point of emphasis for Koch heading into this season is trying to upgrade his hang time.
That could provide a boost to gunners Corey Graham, a former Pro Bowl special-teams ace, and Chykie Brown.
"He's continuing to develop his hang time," Ravens special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. "We value that in our punt coverage. I think his target lines have been good. Working on consistent hangtime is the thing that he has been really focusing on."
In order to improve, Koch is focusing on how he drops the football by slowing down his delivery.
"The drop is the hard part," Koch said. "Everybody thinks they can go out and punt, but you have to drop it as flat as it can be. It becomes a matter of precision and muscle memory. That way, you can hit the right spot every time.
"I feel like I can have another big year. If I didn't, then I shouldn't be playing anymore."
Size: 6-foot-1, 218 pounds
Hometown: York, Neb.
Experience: 7th year
Acquired: Drafted in sixth round by Ravens (203rd overall) in 2006.
Career stats: Has averaged 44.2 yards per punt for his career, all with the Ravens. Long punt of 74 yards, 170 downed inside the 20-yard line, 39 touchbacks, 89 fair catches. Three punts returned for touchdowns, including two scores allowed last year. Averaged career-high 46.5 yards last season.
Background: Earned a scholarship after walking on to Cornhuskers' program. Was semifinalist for Ray Guy award as nation's top punter and named Academic All-Big 12 selection. Earned a degree in business administration. Played linebacker, fullback and tight end in high school as well as soccer, basketball and baseball.
Personal: Koch and his wife, Nikki, have three children, Ryan (14), Braxtyn (8) and Kamdyn (6).Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun