Upon learning 2011 AP Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs had suffered a torn Achilles tendon in late April, Paul Kruger knew it would create the kind of opportunity he’s been waiting for, even if it didn’t come under the most desirable circumstances for the Ravens.
The 2009 second-round pick struggled to find his niche in the Baltimore defense in his first two seasons before finally seeing consistent time as a pass-rush specialist on third down last season. Kruger collected 5 1/2 sacks while providing a viable option on the opposite edge of Suggs, who posted a career-high 14 sacks.
Now being asked to play Suggs’ rush linebacker position, Kruger knows no single player will be able to replicate the star linebacker’s impact. Kruger is simply hoping to occupy the spot to the best of his ability in hopes that Suggs will be able to return to the field at some point during the second half of the season.
“You’re talking about the best defensive player in the league,” the fourth-year linebacker said. “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 me being the best player that I can be and filling that role.”
While most believe Kruger can make an impact rushing the passer, questions remain about his ability to be a three-down linebacker. Often overlooked by the sack totals and his ability to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks, Suggs blossomed into a consistent run stopper over the last few seasons after entering the league as a one-dimensional player.
Setting the edge and showing he can play the run consistently are the keys to the Ravens feeling confident in Kruger as a starter.
“That is our No. 1 priority,” linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. “When we look at guys all the way from pro free agents to the draft to the guys on our current roster, the three things we ask them to do is set the edge, rush the passer, and then cover. So, we all have a great deal of improvement to make in that area.”
Kruger has plenty to prove, but he’s relishing the opportunity to finally show why the Ravens invested a high draft pick in him. After the coaching staff bounced Kruger back and forth between defensive end and linebacker in his first few seasons, the 26-year-old is finally able to focus on one position, knowing a golden opportunity is staring him right in the face.
“It’s a lot more positive when you’re out there and [your role is] much more clear,” Kruger said. “In the past, it’s been rough to kind of not be able to see exactly what you’re working towards or where you’re going or what position. So, it’s been a long road, but it’s paid off, and I’m still grinding. We’re not there yet, but I’m pretty happy about it.”
Billy Cundiff and Justin Tucker had been deadlocked through the first week of their kicking competition, but the rookie gained the upper hand on Tuesday.
Tucker was 5-for-6 on field goals while Cundiff only went 4-for-7. Both players went 3-for-4 in a series of kicks as each missed from 55 yards and connected from 60 yards in an impressive showing. However, when they were called upon to make kicks in more authentic conditions you’d find in a game, the veteran misfired twice while Tucker made both of his tries.
“We put them in a lot of game-like situations where they had to run out, make a kick [at] the end of the game, during a game, those kinds of things,” coach John Harbaugh said. “They did a good job of that. We try to do that as much as we can, as opposed to just go out and kick five field goals in a row, because you don’t do that in a game.”
Unlike Monday when the offense had the better day, the defense extracted some revenge as Bernard Pollard and Ray Lewis each intercepted quarterback Joe Flacco in an 11-on-11 team period. The quarterback gained some redemption by tossing a touchdown to No. 1 receiver Anquan Boldin, but the starting defense appeared more confident in coverage after Harbaugh chastised the unit a day earlier.
It probably didn’t hurt that Lewis and fellow veteran Ed Reed were back on the field after receiving Monday off.
Rookie cornerback Asa Jackson had a sparkling day as he picked off two passes while playing with the second defense. His first theft came against backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor and he later secured an interception against Curtis Painter.
With rookie linebacker Courtney Upshaw still sidelined with a bruised shoulder, Albert McClellan received extensive time at the strongside linebacker position. His versatility will earn him more opportunities as defensive coordinator Dean Pees can line him up at defensive end or any of the linebacker positions if needed.
“The more you can do in our whole system, the better off you are going to be,” Harbaugh said. “Albert can play a lot of positions because he is so smart. He did the same thing in college; I think he played seven or eight positions in college. He is in competition. He is competition for the starting ‘Sam’ [linebacker] spot.”
And while it may not qualify as the first real “fight” of camp, defensive tackle Terrence Cody and rookie offensive lineman Gino Gradkowski mixed it up during Tuesday’s practice, but the altercation was quickly extinguished.
Training camp tunes
In addition to welcoming a limited number of selected fans to their Owings Mills facility, the Ravens have also begun playing music during the team portion of workouts in an effort to recreate the buzz once experienced when training camp was open to the public in Westminster.
Players and coaches alike have been given the opportunity to make song suggestions, but the most bizarre song played on Tuesday had to be “Renegade” by Styx. Of course, any diehard Ravens fan could tell you that’s the infamous tune played at Heinz Field to fire up the Pittsburgh Steelers and their home crowd.
Was it a motivational ploy to keep players hungry during an otherwise routine practice or simply an appreciation for a classic song?
“We had ‘Renegade’ today, yeah,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a good song; it’s a great song. We love that song.”
A more objectionable choice was heard over the weekend as Lil Wayne and Rick Ross blared over the speakers, which probably didn’t go over well as younger fans were in attendance.
It appears the Ravens have now refined the song selection process to eliminate profanity-laced songs.
“You heard that one? That one has been scratched from the list,” Harbaugh quipped. “Did you notice? We haven’t heard that one since. And I like some rap music. There are a few of them I like, but that’s not one of them. Keep it clean.”