Don’t blame B.J. Raji for Peterson carving Packers up
By Rob Demovsky, Green Bay Press-Gazette
~To consider that B.J. Raji had one of his best games of the season last Sunday and was one of the best players on the field at the Metrodome seems preposterous.
How could he have, considering one of his jobs — perhaps his most important job — as the Green Bay Packers’ starting nose tackle is to negate the opponent’s running game? And what the Packers’ defense did against Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was the opposite of negate. It enabled.
Peterson’s numbers have been burned into everyone’s brain.
■ The 199 yards he gained, which helped the Vikings to a 37-34 victory that set up Saturday night’s NFC wild-card rematch at Lambeau Field.
■ The 409 combined rushing yards he gained in the two games against the Packers this season, which accounted for 19.5 percent of his near-record total.
■ The 2,097 rushing yards he totaled during the regular season, which was 9 yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s NFL single-season record.
But ask Peterson what he remembers about Sunday’s game and, after all those numbers, on his list was Raji doing his Dikembe Mutombo impersonation, wagging his finger side to side after he shoved Vikings left guard Charlie Johnson out of the way and dropped Peterson for a 2-yard loss late in the first quarter. It was one of five solo tackles, including two for a loss, by Raji in the game.
It might be all 11 Packers defenders against Peterson, but at least one of the 11 came out on the winning end of the grading scale in an otherwise losing effort.
“He’s an outstanding player, man,” Peterson said of Raji. “I’ve always had respect for him being just a diverse player. A big guy, 320, 330 pounds. Short. Stubby. But strong as an ox and just extremely quick and athletic. You don’t see big guys like that. It wouldn’t surprise me if he could dunk a basketball.”
If Peterson must know, the 6-foot-2, 337-pound Raji said he can’t dunk. He could early in his college days but not anymore. But just about anything the Packers ask him to do on the football field, he has done it. After a slow start to the season that included an ankle injury he sustained on Oct. 7 at Indianapolis that kept him out the next two weeks, Raji finished the season playing the best football of his career.
It resembled the way he played late in the 2010 season, when he was one of the dominating forces on defense during the playoff run and Super Bowl XLV victory. His play then helped him get the recognition he needed to make the Pro Bowl in 2011 even though he didn’t perform as well as he did in 2010. Though he didn’t make the Pro Bowl this season, his play the last half of the year was better, according to his coaches.
“B.J., the last few weeks has been playing his best football,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I like where B.J.’s at here heading into the playoffs. You’ll see him whip blocks, get off blocks and go make a play. I think he’s improved as the season’s gone on, and he’s playing his best football right now.”
The story of Raji’s season won’t be found on a stat sheet. His numbers don’t jump off the page despite the fact his 45 tackles amount to a career high. He didn’t force a fumble or recover one, and he didn’t register a sack for the first time in his four-year career.
“But he’s rushing the passer so much better than in his first few years, and it’s not even close,” Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “That’s just the way sacks are. Sometimes you have a guy who gets a lot of sacks and deserves a lot of sacks. Sometimes a guy’s got sacks, and they’re junk sacks. He just can’t buy a break on a sack right now, but he’s rushing the passer well.”
Capers and Trgovac don’t ask their defensive tackles to pass rush all that often, especially on first- and second-down plays out of their base 3-4 alignment. Their job is to eat up blockers so the second-level players and outside linebackers can come down and make plays. Raji is doing that and more. He’s finding ways within the defense to be more aggressive and take a few more chances without compromising the integrity of the scheme.
“He’s playing more free,” fellow defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. “That’s what happens when you get more comfortable with the defense and truly understand the scheme, and I think he’s getting more comfortable with it.”
After four seasons in the same system, Raji likely knows it inside and out. But he loves to watch film, so in the offseason he intensified his studying by hanging out in the scouting department. He often could be found watching film with scouts Tim Terry and Alonzo Highsmith.
In fact, Raji said he has designs on becoming a scout once his playing days over.
“That aspect of it has always interested me,” Raji said.
“Sometimes, I’ll just go up there and say hello, and I’ll end up sitting up there and watching film with those guys. They know so much about every player in the league that I’ll go up there and watch other D-linemen to try to learn stuff that I can add to my game.”
This week, though, it’s all about stopping Peterson, and it all starts with him. If Raji can have another strong showing up front, perhaps things will go differently than they have in the first two games against him.
And then perhaps more people will notice Raji’s contributions this season.
“Obviously, the numbers don’t tell everything,” Raji said. “People that know the game, watch film, scout it, they know what I’m about. Hopefully, we’ve got a few playoff games that I can really come out and put on a good display.”
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