Paul Kruger turns emotions of the day into game-changing performance

January 06, 2013|Kevin Cowherd

Paul Kruger tried not to get swept up in the emotional tidal wave that washed over M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday.

But this was no easy feat.

In the tunnel right before the pre-game introductions, with the defense buzzing and Ray Lewis delivering his usual fire-and-brimstone incantations, the charged atmosphere felt like the end of the world.

"It was just purely electric," Kruger, the Ravens' big pass rusher, said. "You had the crowd going crazy. You had more media than ever. You had Ray getting your mind right. You just had so many reasons to fight hard and play with passion, and with your heart."

Maybe no one on the Ravens fed off the emotion of the Ray Lewis Farewell Tour better than Kruger.

All game long, he was an absolute beast in the Ravens' 24-9 win over the Indianapolis Colts. When it was over and the Ravens season was alive, at least for another week, Kruger had played his best game of the year, finishing with 2.5 sacks, four tackles and five hits on Colts' quarterback Andrew Luck, who'll be seeing No. 99 in his nightmares for weeks.

It got so bad for Luck that by the end of the game, Kruger was actually feeling sorry for the guy and helping him up after hits, with Luck wobbling to his feet like a man climbing out of a car wreck.

In the biggest game of the season for the Ravens, no one came up bigger than Kruger, who tried not to think of all the meaning and drama of this game once he came out of the tunnel.

Oh, yeah, it was a cry-fest at the Bank yesterday, and I mean that in the best possible sense of the word.

How could the day not be emotional?

How could a city say goodbye after 17 years to a football icon like Ray Lewis — one of the best to ever play the game — and not shed a collective river of tears?

How could the Ravens welcome back their old defensive coordinator, Chuck Pagano, a beloved friend who survived leukemia this season, and not feel the game was doubly-special now, a 2-for-1 on the emotional Richter scale?

Kruger says he was close with Pagano. And he stands in awe of Lewis' passion and energy. ("And he brings that to the table every day!")

But as the defense trotted onto the field after the opening kickoff, Kruger tried to push all that from his mind and play with both the energy and inner calm you need to be successful in this game.

"You can't be going crazy out there and doing things you don't normally do," Kruger said. "Although you do have added incentives and an extra mind-set to win, you have to do what you've been trained to do."

Here's another thing Kruger did with his wrecking-ball performance against the Colts yesterday: he helped himself to a huge payday soon.

He'll be a free agent at the end of the season. And after putting up career highs in tackles (44) and sacks (11.5 to lead the Ravens) and having a monster game like he did against the Colts, he'll get the big money no matter where he ends up.

Kruger says it's too early to be thinking about free agency, not with the Ravens getting ready to play Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos on Saturday in another huge game, with the season again on the line.

But, he said: "I'd like to continue to be a Raven. That's all I'm thinking about right now. Going into this week, it's so big for us right now."

It's big for Paul Kruger, too. The fact is, the whole season has been big for him. After struggling his first three years in the league, he's finally grown into the player the Ravens thought he could be when they picked him in the second round of the 2009 draft out of Utah.

Finally, after all the work and all the tears and all the frustration, he'll acknowledge that he's having his breakout season.

"I think so," he said. "Honestly, I think I could have done a lot more the first half of the season," he said. "I didn't play the way I wanted to. And I was kind of banged up.

"But, yeah, I was able to show some of the stuff I can do. I'm glad it (got) to this point. Because I've been fighting for a couple of years to show my skill. And finally, it's all coming together."

Now the Ravens will have to pay the man if they want him around next season.

And if they don't pay him, another team definitely will.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd at 7:20 a.m. on Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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