January 14, 2010
By David Driver
For the Deseret News
Used with permission
OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Paul Kruger, in his first year as a professional athlete, said the gift of time can be a double-edged sword.
"It is different. It is definitely different," said the former Ute standout, a rookie linebacker/defensive end for the Baltimore Ravens. "You learn how to waste your time or make use of your time. It is easy to waste your time."
Kruger, 23, certainly had more time on his hands earlier this season than he cared to have. He did not see game action in several contests early in the 2009 campaign. Off the field, he has gone out to dinner with friends on the team and said he enjoys the social aspect of the pro lifestyle.
But why was he not playing early on?
"I don't know. I think the coaches would be better to ask about that," said Kruger, without being rude. "Sometimes it gets you down when you are not playing."
But as the Ravens get ready to play Saturday at Indianapolis in the AFC playoffs, Kruger has become at least a small cog in a defense that consistently ranks among the best in the NFL. The Timpanogos High graduate from Orem played in his first NFL game on Oct. 4 at New England. Kruger played in eight of 16 regular-season games, with one start, and he returned his first career interception for 26 yards to set up a game-winning field goal in the Ravens' 20-17 overtime win at Pittsburgh on Nov. 29.
"Initially, he did not play a lot," Eric DeCosta, the director of player personnel for the Ravens, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "Midway through the season, he got his chance and he came up big. He basically won the Pittsburgh game with an interception in overtime. That was really one of the key plays to our whole season."
"It was huge," Kruger said of the play against the defending Super Bowl champions. "I was pretty pumped up to be in that game."
The Ravens' All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, a Salt Lake native and Highland High graduate, has been impressed with Kruger. "It is tough to come in and start right away," Ngata said. "He did a great job of being patient and watching (outside linebacker Terrell) Suggs. He won the Steelers game for us with that interception. That was huge. He could be a great player in the years to come."
Kruger, a two-year starter at defensive end for the Utes, declared for the NFL draft after his redshirt sophomore season. The former All-American started all 13 games in 2008 and ranked fifth on the team with 61 tackles as Utah went 13-0 and beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. He was then drafted in the second round as the 57th overall pick by the Ravens last spring.
Kruger has seen action as a down lineman and linebacker. "He is probably going to be an outside linebacker for us," DeCosta said. "We call it a rush backer. He could get bigger, and the off-season is important for him."
But first things first. Kruger, who had 12 tackles in regular-season play, hopes to get on the field Saturday against the Colts' Peyton Manning, "one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time," Kruger said.
So what is it like to be a rookie so deep in the playoffs? "It is huge. Every week the anticipation gets bigger and bigger," he said. "You work hard all year. It is really exciting. There are competitive practices, and everything is intense."
Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh, in his second season, was asked earlier this week if the best way to beat Manning was to not give the ball to the Colts offense. "Well, I'm probably not going to get into ... would that be tactical question? We're going to do everything we can to win," he said. "Whatever that means, that's what we're going to try and do, and it's going to be tough. Obviously, they have a very good team."
The Colts beat the Ravens, 17-15, Nov. 22 in Baltimore. Indy head coach Jim Caldwell was asked this week if there is any difference now in the Ravens' defense, which shut down Tom Brady and the Patriots on Sunday. "Well, they played great against us," Caldwell told reporters. "They gave us everything we could handle, so they still play a suffocating defense. They're very tough to run on. They're very tough to throw passes on. They picked us off a couple of times and caused some fumbles."
No matter what happens Saturday, the rookie from Utah has had a memorable first year in the NFL.
"I think the year has gone good. I have learned a lot," said Kruger, listed at 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds. "I know I have gotten better. I wanted to play a lot more than I did or have. That is what happens sometimes. Even though I didn't reach all of my personal goals, I am really happy with how I have developed."
"Next year, I want to be more a part of the game and be an outstanding player on the field during the game," he added. "Like anyone else, I want to be out there and contribute. I think the position I am playing now is a good fit for me. I am more of a finesse type of guy. I feel I can stand up or be down in a three-point stance. I feel comfortable whichever way they want."