CLEVELAND — Back in the 2013 offseason, before they reached an ill-fated deal with Victor Butler and Junior Galette had a breakout campaign for them, the Saints pursued former Baltimore Ravens pass-rusher Paul Kruger in free agency.
The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Kruger joined up with the Browns, however. And when the Browns hosted the Saints on Sunday and defeated them 26-24, he showed all day why New Orleans wanted him in black and gold.
It began with his first-quarter sack of Saints quarterback Drew Brees. At left outside linebacker, on a Saints first-and-10 from New Orleans’ 8, Kruger was first engaged by second-year tight end Josh Hill, who nudged the Browns defender toward veteran tight end Benjamin Watson.
Watson then tried to pick up the block on Kruger, but the defender quickly stepped to his right and around the tight end, who almost fell in his attempt to keep pace. Kruger then rumbled toward Brees unimpeded and slammed the Saints quarterback down at the 1 of New Orleans, who three plays later punted for the second of three times in a first quarter that saw Cleveland seize a 10-0 advantage.
The havoc Kruger created Sunday didn’t stop there — it continued with a second-quarter pressure on Brees that produced six points for the Browns.
The Saints had an empty backfield on that play from their 44. Lined up with his hand in the dirt on Brees’ blind side, he charged toward New Orleans’ QB with left tackle Terron Armstead in his way. Kruger briefly tussled with the second-year tackle, executed a swim move with his right arm and managed to get inside and past Armstead.
Kruger barreled into Brees an instant after the quarterback fired a deep pass down the middle of the field to tight end Jimmy Graham that appeared to be affected by the oncoming Kruger. The pass came out high, sailed over Graham’s outstretched hands and was intercepted by Browns safety Tashaun Gipson.
Gipson ran the interception back 62 yards for a touchdown that put Cleveland up 16-3 before a failed two-point conversion.
Kruger subsequently quieted for a bit but resurfaced in the fourth quarter with about seven minutes to go and New Orleans leading 24-23. On a first-and-10 from New Orleans’ 37, Kruger swatted down a quick throw Brees aimed at Watson, running an out to the right.
For the ensuing snap, Kruger lined up on the right edge of the Saints’ offensive line, and New Orleans brought left guard Ben Grubbs over from his spot to tussle with the Browns defender. Kruger nonetheless managed to work past Grubbs and hurry Brees up into throwing away a pass to avoid another sack.
The Saints converted the ensuing third down and eventually drove as far as Cleveland’s 31 on that drive. But that’s when Browns linebacker Karlos Dansby sacked Brees for a loss of 7 on a third-and-5, forcing a punt. Cleveland (1-1) then drove for a 29-yard, game-winning field goal to vanquish the Saints (0-2), who had lost their season opener at Atlanta on Sept. 7.
Kruger’s sizable contribution to Cleveland’s victory over the Saints was not lost on Dansby. “Oh, he’s awesome — Paul is playing out of this world right now,” Dansby said of Kruger, whose sack against the Saints was his second of the season. “I love every second of it. I get to watch it up close in person.”
All of which also presented a reason to revisit the Saints’ interest during the spring of 2013 in Kruger, who was with the Ravens his first four years in the NFL from 2009-12 and helped them win a Super Bowl against the 49ers in New Orleans with nine-regular season sacks in his final campaign in Baltimore.
The Saints were reported to have expressed a high degree of interest in Kruger, alongside the Browns and Colts. The Browns outbid the Saints and Colts with a five-year, $40.5 million contract, and Kruger has since recorded 6.5 quarterback sacks for Cleveland.
New Orleans then landed Victor Butler — who had spent four seasons in Dallas — on a two-year, $3 million deal. But Butler didn’t play a single game for the Saints, sitting out 2013 with a knee injury, missing much of this year’s training camp with a hurt ankle and then being released.
Ultimately, as the Saints held opponents to the fourth-fewest yards in the NFL in 2013 and made the divisional round of the playoffs, New Orleans’ Junior Galette had a career-high 12 sacks, the sixth-most in the NFL and second-most for the Saints behind Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan’s 12.5. Galette recently signed a four-year, $41.5 million extension that will keep him under contract for the Saints through 2019 (he had been due to become a free agent in 2015).
But, at the beginning of their second year under coordinator Rob Ryan, the Saints’ pass rush has been less productive. The Saints only have a pair of sacks through their first two games — one by Galette on Sunday and another by defensive lineman Tyrunn Walker in Week 1.
The Saints averaged slightly more than three a game in Ryan’s first year.
“We’re disappointed, but we’re not discouraged at all,” Galette said in Cleveland about the Saints’ slow start in 2014. “We’re going to get this right, and we’re going to be the team that everyone expects us to be — the team we expect us to be.”
Among the reasons that Saints aren’t that at the moment was a standout day by Kruger.