OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) - Paul Kruger made significant strides in his performance last season, setting career highs with the Baltimore Ravens in games played, sacks and tackles.
Now it is time for the fourth-year linebacker to take another huge step, one that should have a significant bearing on whether the Ravens (No. 5 in the AP Top32) are to reach the postseason for a fifth straight season.
Kruger is being asked to replace 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs, who could miss the entire season with a torn right Achilles tendon.
As Suggs' backup last year, Kruger had 5½ sacks, 15 tackles and played in 16 games for the first time. It was his best showing since Baltimore selected him out of Utah in the second round of the 2009 draft.
Kruger is a far better player than in his rookie season, and the 6-foot-4, 270-pounder is working hard this summer to become a three-down linebacker.
But he is quick to point out that he is no Suggs.
"You're talking about the best defensive player in the league," Kruger said Tuesday. "It's pretty much impossible to replace a guy like that. For me, it's about just me being me and being the best player I can be and filling that role."
Perhaps the most important facet about Kruger's new job is that he knows precisely what is being asked of him. That wasn't the case in the previous three years, when he saw time on special teams and rarely came off the bench on first downs.
"It's just been a long road in the sense that I've moved to different positions. My role just wasn't as clear as every player wants it to be," he said. "The last three years have been just kind of a grind for me. I'm trying to find different ways to be effective and be part of the team. Maybe a little bit more of that happened last year, so this year it just seems a lot more clear."
Kruger proved last year he could rush the passer. Now he has to add run-stopper and pass defender to his repertoire. He might not be as good as Suggs - not yet, anyway - but that doesn't mean the Ravens are asking anything less from the 26-year-old Utah native.
"The biggest thing with Paul right now is the expectation that's placed on him," linebackers coach Ted Monachino said. "It's been an adjustment for him after primarily being Terrell's backup. The backup rush linebacker in our system doesn't get many reps."
That's no longer an issue for Kruger, who has received plenty of on-field time during the first few training camp practices. There are plenty of playmakers on the esteemed Ravens defense, and it is time for Kruger to become one of them.
"It's really important for this team and for myself," Kruger said. "Everybody's out here fighting. We want to be a great team this year, so I'm busting my tail to make plays and be a guy everybody can rely on."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh is confident Kruger can be that player.
"We'll find out. I think he is, but time will tell," the coach said. "Everybody gets their opportunity in life and this is his. I think he's going to do well with it."
Kruger played defensive end at Utah for only two years before being drafted by the Ravens, so he wasn't going to step in on this defense and play immediately. Now, four years later, Kruger appears ready to impress.
"Paul's come a long way. He's a far better player," Harbaugh said. "He had a lot to learn, and he's learned a lot - just the pace of play and the work ethic, professionalism as a football player. Guys have to learn that. He's done a great job of that."
Kruger said, "In the past, it's been rough to not be able to see exactly what you're working toward, or where you're going, or what position you're going to play. It's been a long road, but it's paid off. I'm still grinding. We're not there yet."
In other news, Harbaugh confirmed that tight end Dennis Pitta has a broken hand and will be out 4-6 weeks. Pitta sustained the injury during Monday's practice.
"We'll be shooting for the first regular-season game. If it's sooner than that, that will be a bonus," Harbaugh said of Pitta, who had 40 catches for 405 yards and three touchdowns last year.