BEREA, Ohio — New season, new start and — holler if you’ve heard this one before — a new defensive scheme for the Cleveland Browns.
Paul Kruger looks like a new player.
In a good way.
Two games in, Kruger leads the Browns with 2 sacks and has been one of the team’s most active defenders. The new scheme has allowed Kruger to move around and line up at various positionss, but he’s clearly moving better after saying he didn’t feel he had his usual explosion off the snap last season.
That was an expensive problem. Kruger had 4.5 sacks last year, his lowest total in three seasons, and it was extra alarming because the Browns gave Kruger a five-year, $40 million contract before last season to leave the Baltimore Ravens, where he was a pass-rushing specialist.
Early in 2014, he’s been a productive every-down player for a Browns defense that’s shown signs of being pretty good.
"I think it’s a combination of things, definitely being in the right system and being put in situations where you have opportunities to be a huge part of the game," Kruger said of his early success. "It’s been a focus of mine, just having more explosion off the line. I think most pass rushers, if you ask them, that’s what kind of sets of everything else so it allows you to be more dynamic in certain ways."
Past the nightmarish first half in the season opener in Pittsburgh, the Browns defense has been aggressive and active. New inside linebacker Karlos Dansby said Kruger has been "awesome, out of this world" and has set a tone with his energy.
"It’s electric," Dansby said. "You see him play like that and he insipires everybody else to play at a diffrent level. You gotta love it. I know I do."
Playing well and being more comfortable with his surroundings has allowed Kruger to embrace more of a leadership role, and his production has plenty of people taking notice.
"He’s not all talk," new Browns coach Mike Pettine said. "He’s backing it up."
Kruger said the new scheme has allowed more him more "freedom" but said he feels he’s better because he’s used improved technique to make sure he’s getting his usual explosion based on "what the coaches are stressing."
Under Pettine and defensive coordinator Jim O’Neill, the Browns want to stay on the attack.
"It’s simple physics," Pettine said. "You’re usually outweighed by a lot when you’re (a linebacker) going against tackles. If we’re thinking run, then we’re going to tighten those aiming points down, give him more of a chances. (Kruger) bought into it, and there were some growing pains with it. There were a couple times in the preseason where he was running up the field.
"That’s when we hit him with the old, ‘Hey, you can’t get a sack on a running play.’ I overuse the phrase, but he’s one of the ones if you say, ‘Hey, who’s really bought in?’ It’s been (Kruger)."
Pettine said during the preseason he thought Kruger had the tools "to be one of the elite linebackers in the league" and was very good with his "violent" hands. Now that Kruger has his legs going and trusts his eyes, too, he plans to keep visiting opposing quarterbacks in the backfield like he did during his 9-sack season with the Ravens in 2012.
"I think sometimes sacks do come in bunches," Kruger said. "You can get into a rhythm like a guy shooting free throws. Some guys are consistnetly getting a lot of sacks.
"I feel good. That’s all I can say. I feel like I’m moving well and being put in good postions. The coaches are doing a great job and when you have guys on defense like we have, there are going to be chances for everybody. I’ve been fortunate enough to finish plays when I’ve had my chances.
"It’s really about everybody, people in the right place and getting (pressures). It’s always nice to make a couple plays here and there."