Loss of Raji not devastating to defense
The news Saturday that nose tackle B.J. Raji's season has ended because of a torn biceps from Friday night's preseason game against Oakland had to hit the Green Bay Packers hard.
He's a large man (337 pounds) with a quick first step and long experience in coordinator Dom Capers' defense. He's also one of the better-known names on the roster.
But the truth is, this isn't a devastating loss. If you look at Raji's production from last year and this preseason, he was hardly dominating. As the season plays out, I think second-year pro Josh Boyd and undrafted rookie Mike Pennel will fill that nose tackle role just fine.
The Packers don't ask their nose tackle to make sacks and big plays, they ask him to maintain gap presence against the run. From what Boyd and Pennel have shown in the preseason, they can do that.
Boyd is one of the most improved players on the roster from last season. He's not a physical freak like Detroit's Ndamukong Suh, who made a big impact as a rookie because of sheer physical talent. Boyd has some physical ability but not enough where he could step out there and play as a fifth-round draft pick last year.
He had to learn how to line up right and develop consistent techniques, and now that it's becoming second nature, his physical talent is coming to fore. He's quietly having a nice preseason. He moves faster than you'd think looking at him. He's a powerful guy and gets up and down the line of scrimmage. So the Packers can just put him in there and go.
Pennel, the undrafted rookie from little-known Colorado State-Pueblo, will help, too. He's bigger than Boyd — 323 pounds to Boyd's 310 — and is a bulldozer. His strong suit is getting his hands on the center and pushing him back like he's on skates.
When a nose tackle gets that kind of push, it blows up the run game and makes it much easier for inside linebackers to tackle near the line of scrimmage. They don't have to climb over a defensive lineman who's been knocked back a yard or two. They have better angles to the inside run and runs away from them. Pennel also can redirect running backs just by pushing upfield a step or two.
Also, Capers won't be asking Boyd and Pennel to play 50 snaps a game combined. Raji played primarily in the base defense, and Capers runs so much subpackage (various versions of the nickel and dime) that Raji was going to come off the field a lot. Defensive linemen Datone Jones and Mike Daniels are getting the large majority of subpackage snaps, and Mike Neal is rotating in some as an inside pass rusher also.
Raji was in there to stop the run. Boyd and Pennel can fill that role.
ON THE RUN
The Packers' coaching staff has figured out how to block for running back Eddie Lacy, and it's shown in the last two preseason games. Lacy averaged 5.5 yards on 11 carries combined against St. Louis and Oakland, and the starting offensive line stole the show Friday night against the Raiders.
When coach Mike McCarthy came to the Packers in 2006, he ran an Alex Gibbs zone-run blocking scheme. But starting last year and through the offseason, McCarthy has adapted to his dominating, powerful runner who's used to running downhill and without a fullback.
Instead of zone blocking most of the time, McCarthy is pulling his guards consistently, and they're doing a great job. One key to run blocking is maintaining contact, and you saw against the Raiders that Packers offensive line coach James Campen has been emphasizing that this year.
The difference in the quality of the starting line's run blocking is night and day from recent seasons. Right guard T.J. Lang is blocking with tenacity. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga's return from knee-reconstruction surgery last year makes a big difference, too. He can get to the linebacker level.
Also, combination blocks with the guards and center, where one or the other bounces out to a linebacker, are important to the scheme. Lang, left guard Josh Sitton and center JC Tretter are athletic enough to do that. That was missing last year with Evan Dietrich-Smith at center.
So, the health of the Packers' starting line is going to be key. Looking at the depth, backup guard Lane Taylor probably is serviceable for a game or two, but he doesn't look like a guy to hang your hat on in his second NFL season. Rookie Corey Linsley looks fine at backup center, but I don't know if he can play guard.
And if backup tackle Derek Sherrod has to play against starting defensive ends, which he hasn't in the preseason, he could be in trouble. That could force McCarthy to cover up by chip blocking with a running back or keeping a tight end in to pass block. And it's not like there's payback with Sherrod's run blocking — he's hardly punishing there, he's more of a get-in-the way run blocker. He really struggles with correct hand placement.
So the Packers need to keep that starting front five intact.
■ It looks like DuJuan Harris will be the Packers' kickoff returner and an effective No. 3 halfback — he rushed for 56 yards on 12 carries against the Raiders. He might not run a 4.4-second 40, but he runs behind his pads, runs low and is a small target.
If he's not going to be a home run as a kickoff returner, he's going to consistently have the Packers starting drives on the other side of the 20. The odds for scoring go up for every yard beyond the 20. Starting at the 24, 25, 26, rather than the 16 or 17 is a big deal. It's difficult to drive the length of the field without something bad happening like a penalty. More drives implode with a mistake than are stopped by the defense.
■ James Starks, the No. 2 halfback, has his place in the offense as a tough runner who hits the hole hard. There's no jitterbug, he's just a hammer. But he's almost an automatic drop as a receiver out the backfield. They need to throw 1,000 passes to him before the game.
■ If backup cornerback Davon House can play in the regular season like he has in the preseason, the Packers will have quality depth at cornerback that they didn't last year. And with Micah Hyde and first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix playing well enough to keep the battle for the starting job at safety open, the Packers might have the talent in the secondary to take more chances blitzing this year.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.