B.J. Raji has been a sound, capable starting nose tackle in the Green Bay Packers’ training camp.
The second-year pro has been hard to move and occasionally sheds a block to make a play in the run game, and gets pretty good push on most of his snaps as a nickel pass rusher.
He’s also not been particularly disruptive, either in blowing up the occasional run play or putting quick heat on the passer. A good part of that is the nature of his position as a 3-4 defensive lineman, where the primary job is to occupy blockers so the linebackers can make tackles. But part of it is, he hasn’t been so physically superior through 2½ weeks of camp that he’s overwhelming blockers, and he’s still learning his craft after his offseason move from defensive end to nose tackle.
Anyone looking for the No. 9 pick overall in the 2009 draft to take off as a dominant defender in training camp of his second NFL season will be disappointed. The Packers profess to feeling good about his sound play so far, and still are looking for him to grow into a difference maker down the road after a contract holdout and early-camp ankle injury stunted him last year.
“You certainly hope so,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “We felt he had a chance to be a dominant guy inside because of his size and athletic ability. This is his first (full) training camp, he’s made some progress. He’s done a good job in there at nose tackle.”
After playing Raji at defensive end as a rookie, the Packers flip-flopped him with Ryan Pickett this offseason because they thought Raji was best suited to play nose tackle, where his quickness could cause more problems in the middle of the offensive line. He’s also worked all camp as the inside rusher alongside Cullen Jenkins in the Packers’ No. 1 nickel defense.
“He’s been fine to me,” said defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, when asked why Raji hasn’t jumped out in camp. “He’s been OK, he’s done his job, which is what you want. Sometimes it’s not a glamour position. I have not seen a problem with him, I think he’s had an excellent camp, and he did his job in the game (against Cleveland last week).”
As a 3-4 nose tackle, Raji rarely gets the chance to shoot a gap, as he might as a 4-3 tackle, and even as a pass rusher he often is asked to play to one side or the other of his blocker to help free other players. Last week against Cleveland, for instance, Raji never had a rush in about nine nickel snaps where he just went after the quarterback.
Raji characterized playing in the 3-4 as “different” because its emphasis is more on tying up blockers than making plays.
“Just being enough of a menace so offensive coordinators feel like they have to block you with two, that’s all you can ask,” Raji said in describing what a top nose tackle does. “Once you start demanding two blocks on most run plays, it’s a lot easier for the linebackers.”
Last year, having Raji and Pickett on the same defensive line for 11 of 16 games was a big factor in the Packers having the top-rated rush defense in the NFL. Both are nose-tackle types at 6-2 and 335, and 6-2 and 340, respectively, and were athletic enough to get up and down the line of scrimmage.
But the Packers need to upgrade their pass rush after finishing No. 12 in the NFL in sacks percentage in 2009 and getting shredded by the three best quarterbacks they faced: Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner.
The Packers didn’t draft any outside rushers or sign a free agent of note, so they will be looking for the bulk of the improvement to come from the inside in general, and Raji and rookie Mike Neal in particular. Though Raji’s rookie season wasn’t a washout after an ankle injury sidelined him for most of training camp and the first two games, it was uneventful as a rusher. He worked behind Jenkins and Johnny Jolly in the inside rotation and had one sack and three quarterback hits.
As a rusher, Raji gets more consistent push in the middle of the pocket than anyone else on the line, and on his best rushes, will slip off the block after moving the guard or center back a couple steps. But in camp he hasn’t been the occasional overwhelming force that Gilbert Brown was for the short span of 1995 and ’96, when he was a dominating interior defensive lineman for the Packers.
“He’s a power rusher, he’s not going to be a finesse rusher,” Trgovac said about Raji. “He’s got a lot of leverage behind him and push behind him in there.”
Neal still has time to push past Raji for one of the top two spots in the rush rotation, though he’s still too raw. Neal is unusually strong for a player his size (6-3, 295), but he’s not as powerful as Raji for walking back blockers to the quarterback, so he’ll have to use quickness better than he has. Even if he doesn’t move past Raji, Neal is ahead of Justin Harrell in the inside rotation, and well ahead of second-year pro Jarius Wynn and seventh-round draft pick C.J. Wilson.