OWINGS MILLS — The NFL education of Baltimore Ravens rookie Paul Kruger has tested his patience and his resolve.
Inactive for all but two games this season, Kruger has battled bouts of self-doubt and frustration as he tries to prove himself to the coaching staff and his teammates since being drafted in the second round this spring.
Now, the young outside linebacker-defensive end will be counted on heavily as the replacement for injured Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs. Kruger will make his first NFL start Sunday against the undefeated Indianapolis Colts at M&T Bank Stadium.
“I think a lot of players go through that when you don’t play at first,” Kruger said. “You start to question different things. Why aren’t you playing? Are you as good as you thought you were?
“I’m a pretty confident guy. I never really lost sight of that, but you do have to question: What are the things you’re doing or not doing?"
For Kruger, it’s a prime opportunity to justify the Ravens’ investment in him.
And it’s a promotion created by Suggs’ sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee that could sideline him for at least a few weeks. He has already been ruled out for Sunday.
Through two games and limited action, Kruger has registered just one tackle and a pass deflection.
Signed to a four-year, $3.25 million contract in July, Kruger is eager to display the potential the Ravens saw in him when they drafted him out of the University of Utah and compared his intensity to gritty former Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary.
“That’s why I’m here,” Kruger said. “That’s why I’m on this team, to be effective and make plays and be able to contribute. I feel a huge responsibility and a lot of pressure to play well.
“I want to live up to those guys’ expectations. This is what I love to do. I came here to play. I didn’t come here just to practice. It’s going to be a good opportunity.”
One reason why Kruger hasn’t been active for games besides not having a background on special teams was how he was practicing.
The Ravens wanted him to raise his intensity level, and he has responded to that demand.
“The thing about Paul, he has a tendency to play better in games than he does in practice,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s been elevating his practice tremendously, especially the last four or five weeks. So, I think he’s coming on.”
Kruger readily acknowledged that his trademark motor that made him a hot commodity coming out of Utah as a relentless pass rusher hasn’t always translated into impressive showings on the Ravens’ practice fields.
Part of being a rookie is raising your game to meet the NFL standard.
“That’s where it all starts,” Kruger said. “Practice has been something I needed to improve. My energy level and tempo, the coaches expected that out of me. I’ve definitely gained a little more respect from them and my teammates. I’ve got to keep that up. ..
“I’ve been working my tail off in practice. I feel ready. Physically, I feel like I’m in shape enough to be out there. Watching film is going to be huge for me this week. Studying the game, that’s where I want to work the hardest and let my teammates know that I’m on the same page and up to date with everything that they can trust me.”
During the second half of the Ravens’ 16-0 win over the Cleveland Browns when Suggs got injured on an illegal block by quarterback Brady Quinn, Kruger saw significant playing time.
He also admittedly displayed some nerves as he lined up offsides and drew a penalty on his fifth play.
In the fourth quarter, Kruger deflected a Quinn pass to cause an incompletion.
He didn’t have a lot of success as far as penetrating the backfield, but he did hustle and play hard.
“What we expected to see,” Harbaugh said. “The guy flew around, played hard, had a batted ball. Plays with a high motor. Still learning some of the nuances of the defense, but is picking it up pretty quickly.”
Added Kruger: “I think I did okay. I really want to get a good pass rush this week and create some pressure that way. As far as the run, I think I did pretty well.”
Kruger was an accomplished pass rusher at Utah, but is still working on developing a repertoire of moves beyond the bull rush and speed rush.
At this point, he’s still somewhat raw in his development as he has been learning on the job from Suggs and outside linebacker Jarret Johnson.
Kruger said he understands why he hasn’t been playing much up to this point when it became an emergency situation that forced him onto the field.
“It’s clear, but there are so many different reasons that it’s hard to explain to somebody,” he said. “Mainly, it’s about the guys who are playing in the game and the fact that no one wants to say it, but Terrell Suggs and Jarret Johnson are Pro Bowl players. I’m not at that level yet.
“I don’t expect to come in here and start over a guy like that. That’s pride, that’s hard to swallow. I’m a competitive person. It’s hard to realize for me. I think I have a whole lot of ability. I respect those guys, I love them and I look up to them.”
The Ravens are confident that Kruger will respond well to this challenge with outside linebacker Antwan Barnes rotating in behind him as a situational pass rusher.
They’re counting on Kruger to apply some heat to Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, one of the smartest passers with one of the quickest releases in the game.
“He got a chance to play under some fire,” defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said. “I feel there are going to be some great things for Paul. He just keeps working at it. For him to play behind Terrell Suggs has been unbelievable for him.
“Every time you’re coaching Terrell, you’re really coaching Paul and he knows that. He’s just got to go back to that bank and pull out the things that he has to do.”
Kruger has been through a lot to get to this point.
While attending Utah, he survived a stabbing during a confrontation with a gang that nearly cost him his life.
He’s determined to show what he can do while waiting for Suggs to return.
“I hope Suggs gets back as soon as possible,” Kruger said. “He’s the man. He’s everything we need on this defense. Hopefully, he has a speedy recovery. My heart goes out to him.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.