Without a doubt, Paul Kruger’s finest moment as a rookie came back in the Ravens’ Week 12 win over the Steelers.
With the game in overtime, Kruger picked off Pittsburgh quarterback Dennis Dixon and returned the interception 26 yards to the Steelers’ 28. Six plays later, Billy Cundiff booted through a game-winning field goal, giving the Ravens a huge win over their arch-rival and jump-starting Baltimore’s playoff push.
The interception was the first of Kruger’s NFL career and made him the hero for the night.
Ask the 23-year-old linebacker about the clutch INT now, however, and his reaction speaks volumes about how he views his first season in Baltimore.
“It was a huge highlight for me,” said Kruger, who then paused for a couple seconds. “And I want more of them, you know?”
A star quarterback in high school and defensive end in college, Kruger isn’t used to sitting on the bench during games.
But in his rookie season, that’s exactly what he spent most of his time doing.
Despite being selected by the Ravens in the second-round of the 2009 Draft, Kruger was inactive for seven of the Ravens’ first eight games this season and saw action in just nine regular season games overall (including one start).
He also was inactive for both of Baltimore’s postseason contests.
That lack of playing time frustrated the 23-year-old, who felt he could have been helping the team if given a shot.
“Mentally, for me, I’m a competitive guy,” Kruger said while cleaning out his locker at Ravens headquarters last week. “Not being on the field, it’s been a pretty difficult thing for me. I would say that’s kind of what I’ve had to deal with, is just not being the guy I’m used to being.”
Kruger posted 12 tackles, four passes defensed and the one interception on the season, but was not a regular member of the Ravens’ linebacker rotation even when active.
He backed up three-time Pro Bowler Terrell Suggs at the rush linebacker spot and played a minimal role on special teams, a role he was unfamiliar with after playing strictly on defense at Utah.
Kruger’s only significant playing time this season came when Suggs missed three games with a knee sprain. The rookie saw increased snaps with Suggs out, but even then, he didn’t get the bulk of the reps at the rush LB position. (The coaches slid Jarret Johnson, a seven-year veteran, to that spot.)
Kruger acknowledges that he made strides in his first pro season and grew as a player. That much he can state with confidence.
Now, he just wants a chance to prove what he can do on game days.
“I know that I’ve developed as I’ve been here,” Kruger said. “I mean, I’ve definitely seen improvements on my technique and where I’m at as a football player. But I mean, obviously I didn’t play as much as I wanted to. Not even close, actually.
“So, really it’s hard to assess your success unless you’re actually playing in the game. I know that I’ve improved as a player. How much I guess is undetermined until I can really put it to the test.”
Coming up later today: Head coach John Harbaugh on Kruger’s rookie year and how he expects Kruger to fit in this upcoming season.