OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The top-ranked Baltimore Ravens' defense already has 25 sacks this year, compared to 27 all last season.
One reason for the resurgence is the improved play of third-year linebacker Paul Kruger, who has set his sights on Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethisberger this weekend after twice collaring Arizona's Kevin Kolb last Sunday.
Kruger played for two years at Utah before being drafted by Baltimore in the second round of the 2009 NFL draft. He participated in only nine games as a rookie and 11 last season before finally emerging as a potential bookend to Terrell Suggs, the Ravens' career sack leader.
Kruger, 25, has three sacks in his last two games and hopes to keep the streak going Sunday when Baltimore (5-2) faces the Steelers (6-2) in an AFC North showdown.
"I've been working hard, trying to apply the things I've learned in practice daily and just getting a better work ethic," Kruger said.
The results were on full display last Sunday, when Kruger's career-high two sacks helped the Ravens (5-2) rally from a 21-point deficit to a 30-27 victory.
"Anytime you make plays like that, that's what you work for," he said. "I was excited, but you want to do it week-in, week-out. Those are the guys that become special players, ones who can do that on a regular basis."
Watching from the sideline or getting spot duty over the past two years was difficult for Kruger, an every-down player for Utah at defensive end.
"I'm a competitive guy and I want to be on the field every play," Kruger said. "That's just who I am. I'll always be like that. It does get frustrating, because I want to do the best to help this team."
It wasn't easy to be inactive on game days, but his parents helped him get through it.
"I'd come home frustrated, and they're just happy I'm here," Kruger said. "I guess sometimes I don't realize how special it is just to be here. For me, it's just another week."
Things changed this season, when a solid summer turned into a productive fall. Kruger has played in every game thus far.
"From the start of training camp, Paul is much improved," coach John Harbaugh said. "He's added a couple of moves to his pass-rush repertoire, and he has been quick and explosive. I think he's a dangerous pass rusher right now."
Teammate Jarret Johnson saw it coming.
"Kruger had a great preseason. I thought he was going to have a breakout year," Johnson said. "He was very close to getting sacks the first few games; he had a lot of good hits and a lot of good rushes but just didn't get anything out of it. The last two weeks it's been working."
Had he used all his eligibility at Utah, this would be Kruger's rookie season. So there's obviously plenty of room for growth.
"I've got a long way to go," he acknowledged. "I had a couple good plays, and now I want to keep progressing and getting better every week. Suggs is a one-in-a-million player, and I'm honored to be playing on the other side of that guy."
Said Johnson: "Kruger is going to be a really good player one day. He is now, but I mean, he's going to be really, really good. He's definitely on the upswing."