It wasn't after a good punt that Ryan Longwell realized how much second-year punter B.J. Sander had improved from last year. It was after a bad one.
Sander shanked a 32-yarder off the side of his foot during the second quarter of the Green Bay Packers' Aug. 20 preseason game versus the Buffalo Bills.
"Last year that would have led him into a tailspin where it would have been three or four bad kicks in a row," Longwell said. "He came back with the next two and hit them both perfect. That was really the sign he was taking everything in stride."
Sander has responded all season long like he did after that 32-yard punt. His net punting average of 38.6 ranks a respectable 12th in the NFL, and that average would represent more than five yards of improvement from the Packers' average last year.
"I'm pretty happy with the way my season is going," Sander said.
His performance against the Detroit Lions in Week One may have served as the highlight of his young season. He punted six times to Pro Bowl return specialist Eddie Drummond and averaged 41.3 yards. He helped hold Drummond to 12 yards on six returns.
"When we were playing Drummond, he did what we asked him to do with the football," head coach Mike Sherman said. "He's had good hang time against a good punt returner."
Sander has improved from his rookie year by focusing on his technique. He worked on synchronizing the timing between his hands and feet. Now he can drop the ball onto his foot the same way every punt.
"It's the mechanics that lead to the consistency," Sander said. "And since the mechanics have been much more sound, the consistency has come along."
He began honing that consistency during his offseason stint with the Hamburg Sea Devils of NFL Europe. His performance there also gave him confidence for the 2005 NFL season. He finished second in NFL Europe with a 40-yard gross average and 36-yard net average.
"I hit the ball well when I was over in Europe," Sanders said. "So I knew I could use that to build on."
His time in Europe allowed him an escape from the fans and media, who harshly criticized him during his rookie year. Packers fans expected the winner of the Ray Guy Award as the nation's top collegiate punter in 2003 and a third-round draft pick in 2004, to provide immediate results.
Sander did not deliver.
The Packers did not activate Sander for any game last season. They signed 15-year-veteran Bryan Barker instead.
"It wasn't his fault that he was a third-round draft pick," Longwell said. "He was a little frazzled with that and not quite ready to kick."
This year, as proven by the Bills game, he has more confidence. He has learned to bounce back from adversity.
"He's matured a ton," Longwell said. "He doesn't get too excited when he hits a good one, doesn't get down when he hits a bad one. It's just kind of even keel, which you need to be to survive in this league."
Sander said he needs to continue to improve his ball placement and consistency. He wants to land punts between the numbers on the sideline with good hangttime.
His gross punting averages can be deceiving. Sander ranks 28th in the league with 40.8 yards. Strong-legged punters, however, can boom punts for 50-plus yards and out kick their coverage units, allowing the returner to take the ball near midfield. Sander is allowing only 2.7 yards of additional return yardage, showing the timing he has developed with his punt coverage unit.
Previous Packers punters have specialized in one area. Sean Landeta had limited leg strength but great accuracy and ball placement. Craig Hentrich had a very strong leg, but developed his touch over the years. Josh Bidwell could also boom his punts.
Sander is a combination of both accuracy and distance.
"He's never going to be a drive punter necessarily," Sherman said. "But he's placed the ball where we wanted him to place it."
The 25-year-old punter also said he needs to work on holding for Longwell's field goal and extra point attempts. Longwell missed an extra point against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but long snapper Rob Davis accepted the blame for a high snap. A better hold, however, may have prevented that miscue.
"I'm not happy with the way I'm holding," Sander said. "I need to get more consistent so Ryan has that comfort level with me."
Regardless Sander has made great strides in just his second season and first as an active NFL player.
"I'm a lot more comfortable," he said. "I knew that would come with game experience."