Ravens' kicking game off on right foot thanks to Cundiff, Koch

Kicker, punter were key factors in win over Browns

September 30, 2010|Mike Preston

The situation came up twice in the fourth quarter a week ago, and each time Ravens head coach John Harbaugh wanted to kick away from Cleveland Browns kickoff return specialist Josh Cribbs.

Ravens special teams coach Jerry Rosburg agreed. But there was one problem. Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff said he could kick the ball out of the end zone, so the Ravens gambled on Cundiff.

And won.

The Browns had to settle for touchbacks twice. And when the Browns start a possession at their own 20, it's like starting at the 1 because they don't have a quarterback who can throw, and only one receiver who can catch.

"I just wanted to keep it out of Cribbs' hands," Harbaugh said. "Ten seconds later, he [Jerry] says to me, Billy wants to kick it deep, he's going to knock it out of the end zone. I said, is he sure? They say yeah, so I said, let's give him a shot. You've got to like that. And the second one was even deeper, more impressive."

Kickers, punters, holders and snappers are in the same class. They don't get a lot of respect and recognition until they mess up. But the Ravens kicking game has been sound through the first three games, and Cundiff and punter Sam Koch played as much of a part in the Browns victory last week as Anquan Boldin and Joe Flacco.

In his fifth season, Koch has established himself as one of the premiere punters in the league. Every season, especially early when the offense is going through Identity Crisis No. 99, he bails them out with some long punts to win field position.

Koch is averaging 40.4 yards on 16 punts this season, seven of them inside the 20. If he wasn't in the same conference with the Oakland Raiders' Shane Lechler or the San Diego Chargers' Mike Scifres, he'd probably have Pro Bowl honors by now.

"If he was in the NFC he would probably be in the Pro Bowl every year," Harbaugh said. "I don't know if there is really a great punter in the NFC."

There aren't any punters that tackle better than Koch. In the last three years, he has stopped opposing teams several times from scoring on long punt returns. In the first game against the New York Jets, Koch took down Jim Leonhard after a 32-yard gain, and Koch was the last Raven standing.

Koch learned to tackle at Seward High School in Nebraska, where he played on offense, defense and special teams. Koch doesn't look like your normal punter. He weighs 222 pounds and is extremely fit.

"In high school, I played linebacker, and I played fullback and offensive line," said Koch. "We were a small class B school so we were allowed to do that. Against the Jets, I saw him coming right at me. He made the right move for me to step into position and I knew I wasn't going to let him go."

Koch doesn't care about the publicity. That's not his style.

"To me, it's all about having a job, helping my teammates and doing the things that I can to get this team where we need to go," said Koch. "If the recognition comes, it comes, but I'm just happy to have a job."

So is Cundiff. He had a stiff battle to win the job in training camp, and after signing with the Ravens last season, is on his fourth team in eight years.

But now, he is finally comfortable in Baltimore.

It shows on the field. Of his 11 kickoffs, six of them have been touchbacks. The average possession for the opposition following a kickoff beings near the 24. Cundiff is three of four on field goals, the lone miss being a 51-yard attempt that hit high on the left upright against Cleveland.

To say Cundiff's leg has been live would be an understatement.

"He's coming along. He was a guy that was always a hang-time guy," said Harbaugh. "There are different leg swings. He's been taught to do directional hang time, but we're trying to teach him to just drive it — just get behind the ball and drive it as deep as you can, so it's a different swing. That's what we were trying to do last year, but now he's gotten pretty good at it."

Cundiff said: "It's the first time in a long time that I've been with the same team that I played with the year before, so there's some continuity there. I know the coaches. I know what they expect. I am able to be myself and I'm able to set some goals for myself that are in line with what the coaches want and in fact are sometimes higher than what the coaches want."

The kicking game has been one area of the special teams that isn't a concern. There will be emphasis this week against the Pittsburgh Steelers on the coverage again because the Ravens want it to be as consistent as it was against the Browns.

But with Cundiff and Koch, the Ravens are content, at least for the moment.

"Overall, I think they have done a pretty good job," said Harbaugh.

mike.preston@baltimoresun.com

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