Kruger bounces back from early injury, emerges as dynamic pass rusher

Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger hits Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck in the second half of the Ravens wild-card playoff win over the Colts in Baltimore Sunday.
Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger hits Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck in the second half of the Ravens wild-card playoff win over the Colts in Baltimore Sunday. (DYLAN SLAGLE/
STAFF PHOTO , Carroll County Times)

OWINGS MILLS - His explosiveness felt limited. Routine movements had become painful and difficult. And his production suffered as a result.

Ravens outside linebacker Paul Kruger felt little like the player who multiple teammates projected to be on the verge of a breakout year in the weeks leading up to the regular season.

Originally hurt during Baltimore's season-opening win over the Cincinnati Bengals, Kruger's back injury sidelined him for the following game and lingered for much of the first half of the season.

"I don't know if you've ever had a back problem, but you just can't move," Kruger said. "It's the worst. ... Movement all-around [was difficult]. And when you can't move as well as you need to, playing in a game full-speed is kind of tough. It limited me for sure, but I'm just glad I was able to come out of it and have some success this year."

That he has.

And after being limited to just 1½ sacks through Baltimore's first six games as he battled through the back injury, Kruger has 10 sacks in the Ravens' last nine games, overwhelming opposing offensive tackles with a pass rush repertoire that's showcased an impressive combination of power and athleticism.

He had 7½ sacks during the final eight games of the regular season - tied for the fifth-most in the NFL over that span - before tallying 2½ more sacks during the Ravens' 24-9 wild-card win against the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday. The 2½ sacks rank as the second-highest single-game total in franchise playoff history.

"Krug's a pass rusher," fellow outside linebacker Albert McClellan said. "He's a monster. It showed this past game [against the Colts] that he's a dominant pass rusher in this league. I think he's an all-around player, but his true athletic ability shows when he's rushing the passer."

And it's been as a pass rusher that Kruger has established himself as an integral part of Baltimore's defense since the bye week.

That's not to say Kruger hasn't made an impact in other areas of the defense as well. He had three tackles for a loss against the run-heavy Kansas City Chiefs in Week 5, had seven tackles against the Washington Redskins in Week 14 and had a pass deflection that was nearly an interception in the Colts game.

But Kruger's biggest impact comes as a pass rusher.

He had sacks in five straight games from Week 10 to Week 14 - tying a franchise record for consecutive games with a sack - and has at least one sack in seven of Baltimore's last nine games.

A second-round pick of the Ravens in 2009, Kruger saw only limited playing time in his first two NFL seasons before recording 5½ sacks as a situational pass rusher last season.

But after posting just 27 tackles and 6½ sacks in his first three NFL seasons, Kruger finished this year's regular season with 42 tackles, nine sacks, six pass deflections, an interception and a forced fumble before notching four tackles, the 2½ sacks and the pass deflection against the Colts.

"Last year to this year, he is bigger, he is faster and he is stronger," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said of the 6-foot-4, 270-pound Kruger. "He did all these things in the offseason to make himself physically a better and more explosive player, and the technique stuff as well.

"He has done a great job. ... He has built an array of pass-rush moves that have been really effective. He is able to get off the edge and he has some deceptive quickness at the top of the pocket where he can turn the corner, knock the arms and turn the corner or counter back inside. He's used that stuff very effectively."

And he's expected to be well compensated for that after the season, whether that's by the Ravens or someone else.

A free agent after the season, Kruger is expected to seek a contract worth somewhere in the range of $40 million over five years.

"That dude's making money, man," Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard said of Kruger. "That guy is playing ball. Krug's setting things up, and I'm so proud of him. To step up the way he's been stepping up, and come in and help his team out, it's truly been phenomenal. I'm just excited for him."

And the Ravens will hope for more of the same from Kruger in their divisional round matchup against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos on Saturday in Denver.

Manning threw for 4,659 yards and 37 touchdowns during the regular season in leading a Broncos offense that averaged more than 30 points per game. Denver's offensive line allowed just 21 sacks during the regular season, the second-fewest in the NFL.

"I'm excited, and I'm just ready for this game coming up Saturday," Kruger said. "It's a big-time game."