With the season-threatening injury to Terrell Suggs and the departure of Jarret Johnson in free agency, outside linebacker Paul Kruger was asked repeatedly this offseason about the pressure he feels to fill some rather large shoes on the Ravens defense. But Kruger, a part-time player in his first three NFL seasons, said that before he worries about replacing Suggs, he first needs to prove that he can be an every-down player.
Kruger knows that stakes are high right now -- for both him and for the Ravens -- and he doesn’t want to let himself or his championship-starved teammates down. He believes it is time for him to take that next step.
“It’s really important just for this team and for myself, and everybody is out here fighting,” said Kruger, who was asked by reporters about Suggs at least three times after Tuesday’s practice. “We want to be a great team this year, and so I’m busting my tail to be able to make plays and be a guy who everybody can rely on.”
Kruger played his best season in 2011, setting career highs in sacks (5.5), tackles (15) and fumble recoveries (two). But 4.5 of those sacks came in a four-game span in the middle of the season. He added a sack of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the team’s 23-20 loss in the AFC championship game.
With Suggs sidelined at least until midseason, Kruger will be counted on to pressure the passer from the rush linebacker spot. But another key requirement of his job will be setting the edge against the run, something both Suggs and Johnson did very well. After all, the Ravens get on the highlight shows by hammering quarterbacks, but everyone in that locker room tells you that stopping the run is the hallmark of the defense.
Kruger feels he is improving in that area, and in the offseason, he talked about how he wanted to do the unheralded dirty work that made Johnson so revered in Baltimore. Linebackers coach Ted Monachino said that Kruger -- who has played three different positions with the Ravens, including both outside linebacker spots and defensive end -- has developed a lot as an all-around defender, but he remains a work in progress.
“You see his talent right off the bat,” Monachino said. “Paul is a big man that moves extremely well for a guy of his size. He has a lot of experience in certain parts of the game, and in other parts of the game he has to improve a great deal. He’s doing everything every day to make those strides … in every rep in practice."
Kruger is expected to man the rush linebacker spot for the Ravens in most situations this season, but they do have the flexibility to flip-flop Kruger with rookie outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, something they have done throughout the offseason workouts and into training camp. Switching them, in theory, could throw off opposing offensive linemen because Kruger and Upshaw each will pose different challenges as pass rushers.
Kruger's versatility has become an asset, but he mentioned a few times Tuesday that it was hard for him not to have a clear role early in his career. In 2009, his rookie season, he was the backup to Suggs at rush linebacker. The next year, Kruger bulked up to play defensive end. Last season, he moved back to outside linebacker and was slated to replace Johnson at strong-side linebacker this spring before Suggs tore his Achilles tendon.
Kruger, a second-round draft pick in 2009, started to shed the bust label last season after he switched back to a more natural position.
“I don't feel disappointed in myself at all,” he said. “It's just kind of been a long road in the sense that I've moved to different positions. We got a lot of talent and older veterans that have been here for a while in the past. My role just wasn't as clear as every player wants it to be. A lot of guys have to deal with that, so the last three years have been just kind of a grind for me. I am trying to find different ways to be effective and be a part of the team. I made a little bit more of that happen last year. This year, it just seems a lot more clear."
Now that he knows what the team needs from him, Kruger doesn’t plan to let opportunity escape his grasp.
“[The work has] paid off, and I'm still grinding,” he said. “We're not there yet, but I'm pretty happy about it."