All Ravens outside linebacker Paul Kruger thinks about nowadays is relentlessly chasing the quarterback. It is an aggressive pursuit fueled by power, speed and well-practiced pass-rushing moves.
The path to the quarterback is rarely twisted nowadays for Kruger, a direct route no longer encumbered by the frustrating obstacles of his scarred past.
Overpowering offensive tackles, Kruger has generated four sacks over the past three games heading into Sunday's AFC North showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Following a slow start to the season, Kruger has emerged as the Ravens' top pass rusher while being utilized primarily as a situational player on third downs.
"I love rushing the passer," said Kruger, a 2009 second-round draft pick from the University of Utah. "It's pure intensity. It takes a little bit of technique, but you basically just do whatever it takes to get to the quarterback. It takes a lot of energy and effort, so I go as hard as I can.
"I've been playing football since I was a little kid, and I love the game. I love the intensity of football. It's the only sport where you have to play 100 percent full-speed the entire time."
Leading the Ravens with 5.5 sacks despite starting only twice, Kruger has relied upon his athleticism, aggressiveness and a burgeoning understanding of how to leverage blockers.
During the first quarter of a 16-13 overtime victory last week over the San Diego Chargers, Kruger barreled into the backfield to sack quarterback Philip Rivers after delivering a powerful hand punch to the chest of offensive tackle Jeromey Clary. That created an opening for Kruger to deck Rivers.
"Kruger's the most natural healthy pass rusher the Ravens have," said former Ravens scout Daniel Jeremiah, who's currently an NFL Network analyst. "He's got every tool you want to get to the quarterback consistently."
A similar scenario unfolded against the Steelers earlier this month during a 13-10 win at Heinz Field.
Kruger overwhelmed rookie offensive tackle Mike Adams with his quickness, forcing him to lose his balance. Then, he shoved the first-round draft pick aside to sack quarterback Byron Leftwich.
"White lightning, man," strong safety Bernard Pollard said of Kruger. "He's able to shake you. He can use the bull-rush. It's kind of rare you see an athlete like that. When I say athlete, I mean white athlete like that. I told him he reminds me of [Minnesota Vikings star defensive end] Jared Allen.
"Jared is a bigger body than Kruger, but he's very similar with his hands, with his feet. He's a smart player. Krug' is capable of going out there and doing big things."
Discovering a purpose
Kruger overcame plenty of adversity to get to this point.
A gang attack nearly cost Kruger his life four years ago in Salt Lake City during his younger brother's recruiting visit to Utah, leaving him with a zigzag scar across his torso that resembles railroad tracks.
It provides a reminder of the stab wounds to his abdomen and ribs.
Kruger underwent four hours of surgery to repair his injuries, including a collapsed lung filled with blood. Surgeons removed portions of his stomach and intestines.
During the scary confrontation, Kruger, his younger brother, Dave, his sister, Jessica, and a Utah teammate were assaulted by an estimated 15 to 20 people. Kruger was stabbed twice, and his brother’s cheekbone was fractured by brass knuckles in the melee that ensued after an argument near the Sundance Film Festival.
It wasn't the first time that Kruger ended up in a hospital for emergency surgery.
When Kruger was 13 years old, he was four-wheeling in a Jeep Wrangler when it flipped and rolled on top of him. His kidney and spleen were damaged so badly that they had to be removed.
“I’m extremely blessed,” Kruger said. “I’ve been through a lot of different things. It’s definitely been something I’ve been able to draw from in life. You go through hard things and you see yourself and what you’re going through.
“You may have tough circumstances. I had times where I wasn’t playing and I was frustrated by things. You see other people, little kids that have been injured or people with cancer, and there’s no room for complaints in life.” When Kruger was drafted 57th overall, he arrived in Baltimore with high expectations of building a formidable tandem with Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. Kruger didn’t make an immediate impact, though. He had just a dozen tackles and an interception as a rookie. His second season was nearly as quiet with just one tackle, his first NFL sack. By last year, the 6-foot-4, 270-pounder bulked up through diligent work in the weight room. And he put the added muscle to use, finishing the season with a career-high 5 ½ sacks.
But when Kruger entered the NFL, he admitted some of the problems he dealt with were because of his actions.
"I've matured a lot," said Kruger, who has a career-high 31 tackles. "I had never had money before in my life. You start being around a lot of different influences. I learned the hard way, being around bad agents, being around girls, being around parties.
"You start to realize, 'This is not the path I want to go down, this is not who I am.' A little bit of that stuff is OK, but you got to learn how to control it.”
A Mormon, Kruger said he always maintained his religion throughout his growing pains. Kruger credits his large family for giving him needed stability. “I never lost touch,” Kruger said. “I always held strong to and always had a passion for my faith and my family. They’ve been the biggest support and success in my life. That’s who I am and what I’m all about.”
Getting to the quarterback
Kruger only had 1.5 sacks through three games and went without a sack for four consecutive weeks prior to breaking out with two sacks against the Oakland Raiders.
Now, he's on a tear.
"Paul's playing really well," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "The last two, three weeks he's really, really played well. He's been a huge impact in our sub packages."
Against the Raiders, Kruger had a season-high six tackles and an interception.
One reason attriibuted to Kruger's success is simplifying his role to more of a pure pass-rushing approach.
"I think part of it is what we've done a little bit schematically is change some of our packages and put guys in roles that we think they can flourish in and also sometimes take a little bit off of their plate in terms of having to know so much,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said. “We're just trying to concentrate on here's what we can do, here's where we're going to put you. He's accepted that role very, very well, and really done a good job with it."
It hasn't gone unnoticed despite Kruger's desire to fly under the radar.
With Adams sidelined with an injury, Kelvin Beachum will start his first game at offensive tackle for Pittsburgh on Sunday and will undoubtedly receive some assistance when matched up with Kruger.
"He's a talented rusher," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Kruger during a conference call. "He has great skill, stop-and-start ability. He has a nice wiggle. He's also capable of running down the center of people. He's putting together a couple of nice rush combinations."
That skill set may pay dividends for Kruger, either in Baltimore or another NFL city as a free agent.
Kruger's in the final year of a $2.847 million rookie contract, and would prefer to stay in Baltimore.
“Absolutely, I love this team, I love my teammates,” Kruger said. “There’s nothing I want more than to remain a Raven, but I haven’t really thought about it. Everything is great here, the way they treat us, the fans, it’s an awesome place to play. I would love to be here.”
Pollard is convinced that a major payday awaits Kruger.
Pass rushers are a valuable commodity.
"Paul's setting himself up for the future," Pollard said. "I think he has a good shot at breaking the bank because this league, this team, we want pass rushers. We want guys who can rush the quarterback and Paul is a heck of a guy to do that."
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