After a dreadful rookie preseason a year ago when he could not win the Packers' punting job, he appeared calm and confident in his approach, helping the Packers' to a 10-7 victory in their preseason opener at Lambeau Field. That has to be of some comfort to head coach Mike Sherman, who selected Sander in the third round of the 2004 draft.
"I thought he kept an even keel," said Sherman. "There's a maturity level in him now that he didn't have last year. He'd really get high after a real good punt and really down after a bad punt. We just take them one punt at a time… This was a very, very important test for him, certainly kicking in front of the faithful outside the fence was part of it, and the Buffalo deal (a scrimmage at Lambeau Field last week). But tonight was really game-like, and he was put in some very difficult situations as a punter and as a holder."
Not only did Sander have the most impressive individual performance of any Packer, but he also did it under adverse conditions. A constant rain that fell throughout the game wreaked havoc on special teams' performers, but Sander passed with flying colors.
"The thing I like about my approach is that I don't have to change it too much depending on the weather," said Sander. "It's one of those things that the less you can change the better."
Sander booted seven punts for a 46-yard average with a long of 53 yards. He put his first kick inside the 20-yard line and had another in the third quarter land inside the five only to bounce into the end zone. Perhaps most importantly, he provided a steady hold for kicker Ryan Longwell to boot the game-winning 53-yard field goal. Sander is in competition with several others to winning the holding job for Longwell. Thus, he was generally pleased with his performance.
"It's a good place to start," he said. "I was looking to go out and have a good night. Overall I was happy with it, but there are still some things I have to work on."
"I still have to go out and do it the next time we practice and the next time we have a game."
Sander is clearly looking forward and not back to last season and said as much on Thursday night shortly after the game. Last season, he appeared as a defeated man and was disappointed he could not win the job. He felt fortunate, though, to win a spot on the roster allowing him to work through his struggles.
Though he spent last season basically as a practice player, he punted solidly in NFL Europe this off-season, and has seemingly gained a measure of confidence performing in games. He also spent time in practice last season punting outdoors in poor weather with Bryan Barker (the Packers' punter last year) while the rest of the team practiced in the Don Hutson Center indoors. That paid off, at least for one night, and should pay off in the future.
Sander may have taken his performance against the Chargers in stride, but the mental hurdle he overcame will be huge when the regular season begins. He realizes that as a specialist, it is not enough to have just one good game.
"It's a consistency issue," he said.
Editor's note: Matt Tevsh lives in Green Bay and is entering his 10th season covering the Green Bay Packers for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.