In a game they desperately need to win, the Ravens will experience life without Terrell Suggs on Sunday. That it comes against the unbeaten Indianapolis Colts, with unstoppable Peyton Manning flinging touchdown passes, makes for an even more dire setting.
It took nine games, three straight losses and a dreadful outing on "Monday Night Football," but the Ravens are back in a neighborhood they appreciate. Underdog is a profile that suits them.
After 105 straight games, Suggs, a three-time Pro Bowl linebacker/defensive end, will sit out Sunday with a sprained right knee ligament. Without him, the Ravens have to be creative - and persistent - to get a pass rush on Manning, who has been sacked an NFL-low eight times this season.
So how will the Ravens replace Suggs? With a rookie pass rusher who has gotten token snaps in only two games this season? Or a third-year special-teamer who hasn't played in a game since missing a tackle on Cedric Benson in an Oct. 11 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals?
"How do you replace a Terrell Suggs, a player that dynamic, that athletic, that gifted?" reserve linebacker Jameel McClain asked rhetorically in a raucously loud Ravens locker room Thursday. "As a unit, we've got to play through our talent, play through our technique. … You've got to play a smart game when you're playing against a smart opponent. You've got to understand you're playing chess, not checkers."
Manning is a chess master. Paul Kruger is a rookie defensive end from Utah who has been inactive for seven of his first nine NFL games. Antwan Barnes is the veteran sub who has been on the bench since blowing the tackle on a touchdown run by Benson in Week 5.
In the nether world of NFL subterfuge, it's unclear which player - if either - will start Sunday. But the Ravens aren't lacking for motivated contributors.
"That's what I've been looking for the whole time," Barnes said about the potential opportunity to escape the inactive list.
"No, it's on me," Barnes said. "I missed the tackle."
Kruger, 23, suffered through a disquieting first month of the regular season on the bench and has played only against the New England Patriots in Week 4 and the Cleveland Browns in Week 10. The absence of the second-round draft pick has sparked much debate among Ravens fans. Now they have a chance to see what Kruger brings.
Manning or no, Kruger is eager to find out, too.
"To me, it's a perfect opportunity," he said. "I'm excited to play in this game, to play against a good team like this. I'm looking forward to it. I don't feel pressure or intimidation at all. I want to go out there and show people what I can do, as well as help my team win. That's what it's all about."
The pass-rush load won't fall on Kruger or Barnes alone, or any one individual, of course. It will be carried collectively throughout the defense.
"It puts pressure on everybody this week," defensive end Trevor Pryce said of Suggs' injury. "I'm not sure about next week. He might play next week. But right now, it takes a lot of guys to replace a guy like Terrell Suggs, a lot of moving pieces."
Strong-side linebacker Jarret Johnson often flip-flops with Suggs and, depending on the defensive alignment, could rush from Suggs' spot. It's likely defensive tackle Haloti Ngata will return after missing two games to an ankle injury.
Still, much of the media and fan focus has fallen on Kruger, who says he doesn't know whether he's starting. When Suggs was injured in the third quarter on an illegal block Monday by Browns quarterback Brady Quinn, Kruger played the rest of the game.
"He works tremendously hard," defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said of Kruger. "He gets better every play."
Mattison said the issue isn't how much Kruger could learn this week but what he learned all along that will get him through Sunday.
"For him to play behind Terrell Suggs has been unbelievable for him," Mattison said. "Every time you're coaching Terrell, you're really coaching Paul, and he knows that. That's our approach to our film sessions. So, it's not a magic deal where all of the sudden, in two days, this is what's going to happen. He's just got to go back to that bank and pull out the things he's got to do."
Coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday that Kruger has made steady progress this season.
"The thing about Paul, he has a tendency to play better in games than he does in practice," Harbaugh said. "But he's been elevating his practice tremendously - especially the last four or five weeks. So I think he's coming on."
"I definitely think my practice habits have gotten better over time because that's just a part of being here and learning and growing as a player," he said. "When you have an opportunity to go against guys like [ Michael] Oher and [ Jared] Gaither, you get better."
Suggs offered his opinion on Kruger, too: "I think he's going to do great. Paul has got an amazing opportunity in front of him. I'm going to do everything that a veteran should do to help make sure he's successful and helps the team win. He'd better do good because he's my apprentice. He's a direct reflection of me."
Ravens coverage online