|Paul Kruger got 5.5 sacks last season in a part-time role, plus this sack in the AFC title game. (Getty Images)|
At least they do now, and, yeah, I know, it's June. But it's a testament to what the loss of the 2011 Defensive Player of the Year means to one of the NFL's premier defenses that Baltimore has Paul Kruger and rookie Courtney Upshaw at his position. For the moment, Upshaw fills Suggs' weakside linebacker spot on first and second downs, while Kruger takes over for Jarret Johnson at the strongside position. Then, on third downs, they switch.
"My job is actually different from what Suggs does on regular downs," Kruger said. "I'm dropping into coverage a lot, moving around and doing a lot of the tight-end stuff. On third downs, I'll be getting after the quarterback like I was last year, but I have more of a SAM linebacker position right now."
Of course, nothing's for certain. As I said, it's June, and few positions were clinched six weeks before the opening of training camp. The idea is to get Upshaw comfortable at both positions and to capitalize on Kruger's strength -- which is rushing the quarterback -- as the Ravens look for solutions to a monumental loss.
It's not just that Suggs was a complete player. It's that he was such a disruptive force, a guy who last year led the team with a career-high 14 sacks, forced a league-high seven fumbles and produced two interceptions and seven pass breakups. Somehow, some way, the Ravens must fill that void, and that's where Kruger and Upshaw come in.
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Kruger is the veteran, with 5½ sacks last season and experience playing behind Suggs. But he was a defensive end who played sparingly behind the outside linebacker, and when he did get on the field in place of Suggs, he was confined to rushing the passer. Now, he's taking on a new role, and it was evident at Wednesday afternoon's practice when he occasionally lined up opposite tight end Dennis Pitta and covered him downfield.
"I'm definitely comfortable confident and ready to go," Kruger said. "I've been working hard this whole offseason, and I'm getting to the point where I'm comfortable and I am completely aware of everything I have to do.
"My goal is not to be Terrell Suggs. I mean, you're talking about the best defensive player in the league. I'm here to do the best I can for this defense, fill the position and be effective at it. And I think I'm on the right path to do it."
And he might. But Kruger is spot on: This is the Defensive Player of the Year and the team's career sack leader the Ravens must replace. It's one thing to subtract Johnson, an anchor against the run and one of the club's most underrated and valuable performers. It's another to couple that with the loss of Suggs, one of the most consistent and dominant defenders anywhere.
"The point is: You never replace a Terrell Suggs," coach John Harbaugh said. "You go with the next player and then you play defense. And I think we'll be really good.
"The good thing is that we still have a lot of veteran anchors out there. People want to talk about this 'aging defense,' but I just don't see it. We've got a lot of good young players rolling in there. Yeah, there are some great players who are older but they have to play at a high level to stay ahead of the young guys.
"So I don't think we're an aging defense. I think we have some star players -- two guys, basically [Ray Lewis and Ed Reed] -- who are older guys who can still play at a high level. But the rest of them are young guys."
Two of them just became starters at linebacker, and it doesn't matter what they're doing now or how they're doing it. What matters is how much they absorb in the next three months and if they can ameliorate the loss of Suggs. Harbaugh said he's not worried because the Ravens have been here before, because he trusts his players and, basically, because the club has no choice. But how far Baltimore goes might depend on how much Kruger and Upshaw progress before September.
"Football's a game of speed and intensity," Kruger said. "So you're going to be trying your hardest on every play. And even if you try to do more than you can do, it's not going to work all the time. You can only make the plays your body can let you make and that you've prepared for.
"I feel I'm on the right path to make a lot of those plays and be a big contributor, but I'm not worried about doing all those things Terrell does. First of all, not many people can do them. Second, even if I could do those things, I'm not the type of guy who says I'm going to come in here and do it. I'm just ready, excited and confident for the opportunity."
Good. Baltimore is going to need all that ... and maybe more.