With each punt that sails out of bounds or bounces into the end zone, the frustration mounts for Sam Koch.
The Ravens punter has been through a lot in his eight years in Baltimore, with many more memories worth savoring than ones he wishes he could kick to the curb. But the 31-year-old said this "little rough spot" over the past four games has been the most maddening stretch of his career.
"It's one of those things where you don't want to let it show," Koch said Thursday as he stood in a mostly empty locker room, many of his teammates as far from reporters as they could get.
Koch has at times displayed the form that made him one of the AFC's top punters, having dropped one punt inside the 10-yard line in each of his past three games. But with a handful of misfires, some of them costly to the 3-5 Ravens, Koch has netted just 32.5 yards per punt since the start of October. At a position with little margin for error, it has been the miscues that have garnered the attention.
"Sam will be the first to tell you that he's just got to play more consistently in games with punts, especially in critical situations," coach John Harbaugh said. "Sam has punted really well in practice. He's punted really well most of the time throughout the course of the season. But one or two not-so-good punts in a game, those are the things that cause you problems."
Koch feels he has been practicing well, and the coaching staff has said as much. He has felt great in pregame warmups, too, but it hasn't translated to the games.
"It's very frustrating," Koch said. "I put all the time and effort and work into trying to make that perfect game and that perfect practice and everything like that, and I think it leads to some of my bad balls. I try to be too perfect out on the game field. I try to be too perfect at practice sometimes. In practice, you don't have the game-time pressure. It's hard to kind of replicate that."
Eight games into the season, Koch ranks 28th in the NFL with a net punting average of 37.6 yards. He has dropped only 14 punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line, and with just 28 percent of his punts landing inside the 20, he is on pace for his lowest mark since 2007.
Koch has reached out to a few players who have been in his shoes, including former Ravens kicker Matt Stover, whom he still considers a mentor. Stover, whom Koch speaks with regularly, has told him to stay positive and keep doing what he has been doing.
"You think 90 percent of it is mental," said Koch, who was also inconsistent during last year's playoffs. "I feel more confident than I ever have, but it's just about going out there, and replicate what I do in practice and put it in the game and put the ball where I want to."
After not punting a ball into the end zone once in his first five games, Koch has kicked four touchbacks in his past three, including two in Sunday's 24-18 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
Both touchbacks last Sunday preceded Browns touchdown drives. His second touchback came after the Ravens, who were trailing by four points at the time, advanced to the Browns' 45-yard line on the opening drive of the second half. Koch had an opportunity to pin the Browns deep. His punt landed at the 1-yard line and two-hopped through the end zone.
In the fourth quarter, with the Ravens trailing by three, Koch attempted a directional kick to trap Browns punt returner Davone Bess on the left sideline. But the angle was off and the punt flew out of bounds for a net of 25 yards. Instead of starting inside their 10-yard line, the Browns began at the 29 and drove downfield for a late field goal.
It was not the first time in recent weeks that directional kicking had been an issue for Koch. In the Week 5 win over the Miami Dolphins, Koch kicked three punts out of bounds, including two that netted just 26 yards each.
"We put a lot on Sam. We ask him to do things that other punters in this league aren't asked to do in terms of direction and so forth," special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. "He has demonstrated in practice, time and time and time again, that he can do all of that. We just need to do that same kind of performance in the game."
Koch, whom the Ravens drafted in the sixth round in 2006, is aware that his position is one of the NFL's most interchangeable, that he theoretically could be replaced this offseason or sooner, even as the coaching staff and teammates express confidence that he will turn his season around.
But punting in the NFL remains his lifelong dream, one he is not taking for granted. He knows the Ravens are relying on him, and doesn't want to let them down Sunday when they host the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium.
"I take a lot of pride in being able to go out there and produce for the team," Koch said. "Your job is always on the line. There are only 32 of us out there, and being able to go in week [in] and week out and be consistent, that's what I strive for. We'll get back on track."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun