Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs won't be ready to play on his newly repaired Achilles tendon for at least five months, which has put fourth-year linebacker Paul Kruger on the spot in more ways than one.
This could be his moment, his opportunity to emerge as an every-down player and help the Ravens maintain their well-earned and long-held reputation as one of the most intimidating defensive teams in the NFL.
Kruger certainly welcomes the challenge of trying to step into Suggs' shoes, but it's not like he can beat his chest and celebrate the circumstances of his unexpected — and unguaranteed — promotion. He's just trying keep it in the proper perspective, which means viewing it as a potentially career-changing opportunity and a great responsibility.
"It's both,'' he said."You look at it as an opportunity to get out there and show what you can do, and you look at it as a responsibility because you've got teammates and coaches that are looking to you to take that role and run with it and help the team and basically tighten the slack. Yeah, I see it as both.
"Suggs is family. It's hard to see somebody get hurt like that. At the same time, we're going to be doing our best, and I'm going to be doing everything I can to help everybody feel comfortable about it. I know I can fill that role, and I'm pretty excited about it."
It isn't the first time Kruger is making a major season-to-season adjustment. He came out of Utah as a defensive end but was projected more as an outside linebacker when the Ravens chose him with the 57th overall pick in the 2009 draft. Though that versatility led the team to try and bulk him up for the 2010 season, he finally got consistent playing time last year as a situational pass rusher.
His solid performance (5 ½ sacks, two fumble recoveries) made him the most logical choice to move into the the starting lineup when outside linebacker Jarret Johnson bolted to sign as a free agent with the San Diego Chargers in March, but he barely had time to consider the concept before Suggs' injury changed everything.
"I feel confident right now,'' Kruger said. "I have for a while. But being put in this situation, it's tough because seeing Suggs go down is tough for everybody, and we need him back as soon as we can get him back and wish him a speedy recovery. I'm just going to be doing my best to help the team the most I can, whatever position that is."
Coach John Harbaugh, while stressing that nobody wins a job during OTAs, expressed confidence earlier this spring that Kruger is ready to move into a starting role. Now, that may be as much a matter of necessity as an opinion.
The Ravens need somebody to step into the breach, and Kruger has reached that point in a young player's career when he needs to take the next big step or step aside. The Ravens chose Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw with their first selection in this year's draft, and they also have to find out if Sergio Kindle is ever going to reach his potential as a pass rusher.
None of them is going to bring everything that a healthy Suggs contributes to the Ravens' defense, but the team hopes each of them can play a role that helps in some way to offset the loss of both Suggs and Johnson.
The Ravens weathered the absense of Ray Lewis for four games last year and came within a dropped pass of reaching the Super Bowl. They opened the previous season with Ed Reed on the physically unable to perform list and still reached the playoffs. The loss of Suggs might be more devastating — because of the potential length of time he may be out — but the stoic philosophy of the team remains the same.
"Unfortunately, the situation with Terrell, we would like that to be different, but it's not,'' said new defensive coordinator Dean Pees. "But it's also not the first time in any of our careers — especially in mine — that we've had a good player either miss some time, or even miss a whole season. What you do is, you've still got to install the defense. You've still got to find out who can play the position. I don't think that we're not going to show up next fall, so the thing of it is, somebody's got to step up. Somebody's got to take his spot."
It looks like that's going to be Kruger.
This just might be his time.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck in his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" on baltimoresun.com and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.
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