Green Bay Packers’ nose tackle BJ Raji ‘very valuable’ in thankless job
Nov 27, 2010 ~ by Kareem Copeland, Press-Gazette
~Four of the top five Green Bay Packers (defensive linemen) have missed time due to injury in 2010.
Cullen Jenkins. Ryan Pickett. Mike Neal (injured reserve). Justin Harrell (injured reserve). Oh, and there’s Johnny Jolly serving a year-long suspension.
All the while, B.J. Raji went about his thankless job.
Raji has played more snaps at nose tackle through 11 games than he did during the entire 2009 season. Game in and game out, the second-year player has been an immovable obstruction in the middle, commanding double teams and allowing linebackers behind him to make plays. He has 41 tackles and 2.5 sacks in the chaotic middle of the defense.
The casual observer won’t notice Raji much and his statistics don’t catch the eye, but he is quietly dominating the line of scrimmage.
“It’s not going to show up on stats,” Pickett said of Raji’s contributions. “The nose is the center of the defense. If he’s weak, the defense is going to be weak.”
Raji’s development has been a blessing considering the Packers have been so desperate for bodies along the defensive line that offensive linemen T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton have been used in emergency short-yardage situations. And this was a season in which Raji solely focused on nose tackle for the first time.
Raji’s rookie campaign was forgettable after he missed the first two weeks of training camp while a contract was worked out. The No. 9 overall pick had to learn on the fly and played on a bad ankle injured in the final 2009 preseason game.
Pickett was the starting nose at the time and Jenkins and Jolly were the starters outside. But defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said the team saw the future anchor of the 3-4 defense when they drafted Raji.
Trgovac pointed to the elite 3-4 defenses in the league and how they’re built around dominant nose tackles. Two-time Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork in New England. Five-time Pro Bowler Casey Hampton in Pittsburgh.
“You have to start the defense from that position,” Trgovac said. “People have told me they want B.J. to have all these sacks. Look how many sacks Hampton has for his career (nine in 10 years).
“That position is so important to the whole defense and it’s not an easy position to play. But it’s so important. That’s why you go out and spend a first-round pick on him.”
Hampton and Wilfork, however, are Pro Bowlers. Does Raji belong in that conversation already?
Teammates and coaches believe so.
“He’s very valuable for us, that’s all I know,” Trgovac said. “If he keeps working hard, he’ll get his recognition and he’ll get the Pro Bowls because the players that play against him know what kind of player he is. That’s what happens with nose tackles when they get voted into the Pro Bowl.
“Casey (Hampton) probably has 10 sacks his whole career. But the other guys that play against him know how hard he is to block.”
It can be hard to catch the voter’s eye at such an unglamorous position. Plus, Raji is far from well-known nationally.
Hampton’s break-out year came in his second season (2002), but he didn’t make the Pro Bowl until the 2003 season.
Wilfork wasn’t selected until his fourth year (2007), three seasons after he became the starter.
The Packers have seen this scenario before.
Safety Nick Collins made his first Pro Bowl in 2008, but his first elite season was 2006 with 102 tackles and three interceptions.
Former cornerback Al Harris had many superior statistical years before being voted to the Pro Bowl in 2007.
Rookie Pro Bowlers, like Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, usually have to post phenomenal numbers, like 10 sacks, to get the recognition. Detroit Lions rookie Ndamukong Suh leads all defensive tackles with eight sacks and is currently the top Pro Bowl vote-getter among tackles.
“It’s just something that comes in time once you make a name for yourself,” Jenkins said. “Then it’s easier to carry on.
“I don’t know if people realize it as much … they see Clay (Matthews) making all the sacks and Tramon (Williams) and (Charles) Woodson getting all the picks and strips. They don’t realize that he’s helping put the defense in that situation. First and second down versus the run and getting push against the pass. He’s helping set up all of that.”
Raji absolutely has Pro Bowl aspirations but knows those individual accolades come with team success. So, it doesn’t hurt that the Packers are 7-3 with the No. 1 scoring defense in the league. And stepping onto a team with playmakers at every defensive position only aids the cause.
“I think they will (take notice around the league),” Raji said. “This game (at 8-2 Atlanta) is a big game around the NFC and a lot of people will be watching.
“Big-stage games are always an opportunity to prove yourself and make a name for yourself.”
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