Raji's renaissance a year in making

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji (90) celebrates a play with strong safety Morgan Burnett (42) against the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field.

No NFL player wants to miss an entire season, especially when you’re a 28-year-old defensive tackle entering a contract year.

Yet, the origins of B.J. Raji’s renaissance can be traced to the night of Aug. 22, 2014, when the Green Bay Packers’ sixth-year veteran tore his right biceps muscle on the eighth defensive snap of the game. His season was over, effectively ending his chance at bouncing back from a disappointing 2013 season.

The injury didn’t cancel his shot at redemption, though. It only delayed it.

Raji made the decision immediately that he’d remain in Green Bay during his rehab. At a crossroads, the 6-foot-2, 337-pound lineman planned to refurbish body – he wanted trim down, increase his flexibility, and find concrete answers on how to better shed blocks and regain his 2010 form.

After returning on another one-year contract, Raji looks like a different player through the first month of the season. He’s dropped down to 327 pounds, added frequent yoga sessions to his training and developed a deeper understanding of Dom Capers’ defense and his playbook.

Raji already has 10 tackles (seven solo) and a half a sack in four games this season, putting him on pace for as many tackles as what’s considered his best NFL season in 2010 when he had 39 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks.

“He’s in the best shape of his career,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s unique in his physical abilities and measurables. His yoga has really helped. I always get a kick out of him stretching during timeouts out there. It just doesn’t look right or fair, but he’s in great shape. I think the biggest thing is he’s healthy. B.J. is a hell of a football player, always has been.”

Before most defensive series, you’ll find Raji sprawled out on his back with his knees and ankles tucked beneath him. It’s something you don’t typically see with defensive tackles at any level, but Raji believes it’s the key to maintaining his flexibility for an entire game.

It’s a quick routine that allows him to stretch his ankles, quadriceps and hip flexors in a matter of 15 seconds and be ready once the series begins. Working with Ryanne Cunningham, owner of Flow Yoga Studio in De Pere, Raji has learned how muscle stiffness could lead to both injury and ineffectiveness.

In 2013, Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac often stressed that Raji needed to get off blocks faster. Raji used boxing and many other offseason regimens to condition his body, but he never made the connection about how increased flexibility aids performance during a season or even a game.

Raji noticed he was getting push in his one-on-one battles, but struggled to shed linemen. That hasn’t been the case this season. He has six tackles and five stops in 55 run snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus. In shifting back to nose tackle, he’s become the focal point of the run defense.

“I feel like I always have the flexion in my lower body. That was pretty much my calling card,” said Raji, who tries to do two yoga sessions a week. “I think as time went on, the banging of the shoulders got a little stiff. It wasn’t as easy to separate off blocks and get off blocks, but I think that’s probably the biggest area where yoga has helped me in being able to finish.”

The Packers have seen a difference in Raji and their entire run defense. Since giving up 141 rushing yards to Chicago’s Matt Forte in the opener, the Packers have conceded only 110 combined rushing yards to Marshawn Lynch, Jamaal Charles and Carlos Hyde combined the last three weeks.

Raji’s resurgence might have caught some NFL teams off-guard – he returned to Green Bay for a modest $2.75 million plus incentives – but it hasn’t surprised anyone in the Packers’ locker room who watched Raji claw his way back to the field after his lost season.

Along with working with rookie defensive tackle Mike Pennel, the year away gave Raji a greater appreciation for the game and the opportunity in front of him. Once he returned to the field, many inside the organization quickly noticed a change in his mentality in addition to his physical appearance.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a guy make the most of that opportunity like he took,” Trgovac said. “Sometimes it’s hard to do when you’re playing ball all day and trying to do all that, and then you get some time off and your body is kind of beat up a little bit. He did as fine a job as I’ve ever witnessed of a guy taking advantage of the situation that was presented to him. He’s lighter. He’s moving better and he’s more flexible. I absolutely you could see it in his play.”

The last time Raji played in 2013, the Packers had two strong veteran leaders on the roster in Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly. Green Bay parted with both after the run defense’s late-season collapse and anointed Raji as its nose tackle in the base 3-4 defense.

The Packers stuck with that plan through his season-ending injury. After going three full seasons without a sack, Raji finally got on the board on the first defensive series against the Bears in the regular-season opener.

He had arguably the best game of his career a week later against Seattle in helping contain Lynch to only five rushing yards between the guards. His two tackles for a loss went a long way in forcing the Seahawks to abandon a traditional running game.

Raji even made a solo tackle of Hyde at the second level In Sunday’s 17-3 win over San Francisco, a scenario that would have been difficult to envision in previous years.

“He’s just as strong as he was before and right now he looks like a younger guy playing because he’s dialed in and he’s taken it on himself to do a lot of yoga and different pilates,” defensive end Datone Jones said. “Now, he’s doing the splits and stuff on the field. He’s having fun and I can tell this year he’s making it a point of emphasis to lead this defensive line.”

Raji understands it’s only four games. A lot of running backs still must be stopped between now and the Super Bowl, but the Packers finally seem to have a run defense that’s capable of lasting the entire season with Raji, Letroy Guion, Mike Daniels, Mike Pennel and Jones in the rotation.

This offseason, Raji will again have another chance at earning the long-term extension that’s eluded him. If he keeps it up, hecould very well be rewarded for his renewed dedication.

“Obviously, I’m aware of the business side of it,” Raji said. “I’m OK from a financial standpoint. I’m more of the mindset now of I want my play to speak for me. Then, everything will take care of itself.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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