BALTIMORE - NOVEMBER 20: Paul Kruger #99 of the Baltimore Ravens defends against Jermaine Gresham #84 of the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium on November 20, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Ravens defeated the Bengals 31-24. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)
When former Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker and fan favorite Jarret Johnson was allowed to test the free agent market and subsequently signed with the San Diego Chargers, it opened the door for Paul Kruger to step into that spot on the right side of Ray Lewis and perhaps become the next great Ravens linebacker. Following in the footsteps of Edgerton Hartwell, Bart Scott, Adalius Thomas and most recently JJ, Kruger has the opportunity of a lifetime in the palm of his hand.
But is Kruger up to the task and can he make the transition from a pass rushing specialist to the multi-tasking three-down linebacker? After three preseason games as the "Sam" OLB, Kruger has seven tackles and no sacks, but in relatively limited playing time. In 2011, Paul had 15 tackles along with 5.5 sacks, while not starting a single game, coming in usually in pure passing situations.
The glaring issue in Kruger's game appears to not be whether he can put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but can he set the edge to defend the run and drop back into pass coverage? The issue was obvious last night, as Kruger failed to do just that on an outside run, leaving the entire side of the field open for the Jacksonville Jaguars running back to run unchallenged for a long gain.
Kruger is also responsible for covering the tight ends on his side of the field in pass defense and he has had a tough time keeping up,although he has had limited success at times. The simple assessment seems to be that while Kruger can move forward and has the strength and speed to rush the passer, he has problems moving side-to-side and backwards to defend the rush and pass, respectively.
The Ravens appear committed to letting Paul Kruger learn on the fly, gaining experience with each game and hopefully learning from his mistakes and improving as the season progresses. Other outside linebacker Albert McClellan has been a pleasant surprise and seems ahead of both him and rookie Courtney Upshaw in his all-purpose abilities. As Upshaw gets more experience and completely healthy from his shoulder injury, he is destined to become the starting OLB.
However, once Terrell Suggs comes back from his Achilles Tendon injury, what will the depth chart look at then? Will it be Suggs on one side and Kruger on the other? Will McClellan have a role and where does Upshaw fit in? Perhaps Upshaw will be the starting OLB and Kruger come in on pass rush situations as in the past with McClellan as the swing guy.
While it is great to know that there will be a lot of depth at the outside linebacker position, it would be better to know the specific roles that these guys will assume and Pal Kruger should be able to step up and claim his rightful spot as a full-time starter, but only if he earns it. The big question is, has he earned it yet?