OWINGS MILLS — Paul Kruger set his feet, squared his shoulders and began barreling past blockers to clear the line of scrimmage and penetrate the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive backfield.
His cleats were occupying the territory usually owned by NFL Defensive Player of the Year outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, one of the most feared defenders in the league.
And Kruger is determined to prove that he belongs in that spot, a vacancy suddenly created in late April when Suggs partially tore his right Achilles tendon and later underwent surgery.
The Pro Bowl pass rusher is expected to miss at least the majority of the season, which means that Kruger will need to fill the void by stuffing the run and harassing quarterbacks.
Kruger is quick to caution, though, that he’s not going to duplicate Suggs’ unique game.
"I’ve said this many times: You’re talking about the best defensive player in the league," Kruger said of Suggs, who generated a career-high 14 sacks and seven forced fumbles last season. "It’s pretty much impossible to replace a guy like that. We just need to get him healthy and get him back, but, for me, it’s about just being me and being the best player that I can be and filling that role. So, I’m pretty excited about it."
It’s not as if Kruger is a complete novice.
A former second-round draft pick from Utah, the 6-foot-4, 270-pounder is heading into his fourth season coming off a breakthrough campaign a year ago as a situational pass rusher.
Kruger registered a career-high 5 1/2 sacks, 15 tackles and two fumble recoveries for the NFL’s third-ranked defense.
The challenge now is to raise his game another level as a full-time starter for the first time.
“I think the biggest thing with Paul right now is the expectation that’s placed on him," linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. "Nobody’s a bigger critic on Paul than Paul. It’s been an adjustment for him primarily being Terrell’s backup, and as you know, the backup rush linebacker in our system doesn’t get many reps. He’s got a little bit of a learning curve, but he is getting better every day. ..
"You see his talent right off the bat. 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. And he’s doing everything every day to make those strides every single day in every rep in practice.”
The improvement in Kruger is fairly obvious since his time as an unpolished rookie three years ago when he had 12 tackles and an interception in limited action.
He played in every game last season for the first time, contributing a sack of Tom Brady and three tackles during the Ravens’ AFC championship game loss to the New England Patriots.
With good size, above-average speed and a burgeoning repertoire of pass-rushing moves, particularly a spin move, bull rush and swim move, Kruger appears to be an ascending player.
“I think I can do a lot of things," Kruger said. "Last year I felt real comfortable rushing the passer and working with Ted Monachino and the other coaches, just holding that edge strong. I feel like I’m coming along there as well, so I’ve got a few different things I do a lot.”
Kruger’s development has included a time when he was widely being labeled a bust only two years ago when he had just one tackle and one sack in 11 games with no starts as he bulked up to play defensive end.
By returning to his natural outside linebacker position last year, he revived a dormant career.
He has silenced most critics, but is aware there’s more to prove.
"I don’t feel disappointed in myself at all," Kruger said. "It’s just kind of been a long road in the sense that I’ve moved to different positions. We’ve 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. It’s exciting."
It’s not the first adversity Kruger has faced, and overcome.
Four years ago in Salt Lake City, Kruger was stabbed in the abdomen with a screwdriver when he and his brother and a Utah teammate were attacked by what’s believed to be a Las Vegas gang.
Kruger survived life-threatening injuries that forced him to undergo a four-hour surgery and have nearly 50 staples to close up his wounds.
When Kruger was 13 years old, a Jeep Wrangler rolled over him and caused internal bleeding that left him in critical condition for nearly a month. He has just one kidney and no spleen because of the accident.
Confidence isn’t an issue for Kruger.
"That’s part of Paul’s makeup as a person," Monachino said. "I don’t think he is ever going to panic. I think the thing with Paul is that he trusts his ability. He trusts his technique. Sometimes, when it gets dirty or cloudy in his mind or in his eyes, it gets harder for him. But when he can clean things up and really focus in on one or two things, he’s pretty darn hard to beat.”
That’s what the Ravens and Kruger are banking on.
That he’ll apply heat to opposing quarterbacks.
That he won’t be muscled by big offensive tackles.
And that he won’t get reach blocked and fail to protect the edge of the defense.
"Once I put everything together, I think I can be effective," Kruger said. "It’s really important just for this team and for myself. Everybody’s out here fighting. We want to be a great team this year, so I’m busting my tail to make plays and be a guy everybody can rely on."
Although Kruger is 26 years old, he hasn’t played a lot of defense.
He served a two-year religious mission in college, shifting from quarterback to defensive end for the Utes where he finished with 124 career tackles, 10 1/2 sacks, two interceptions, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries.
Now, this is his moment to show that he’s ready for a pivotal role.
"We’ll find out, I think he is, but time will tell," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Everybody gets their opportunity in life and this is his. I think he’s going to do well with it.
"Paul’s come a long way. He’s a far better player. He had a lot to learn, and he’s learned a lot, just the pace of play and the work ethic, professionalism as a football player. Guys have to learn that. He’s done a great job of that."
The path for Kruger is about as clear as it’s going to get.
It’s a prime opportunity to establish himself as he heads into the final year of his rookie contract.
"In the past, it’s been rough to not be able to see exactly what you’re working toward, or where you’re going, or what position you’re going to play," said Kruger, who’s due a $615,000 base salary. "It’s been a long road, but it’s paid off. I’m still grinding. We’re not there yet."