EXCLUSIVE: Underrated defense

IRVING, Tex. - When the Green Bay Packers were preparing for the 2008 season a year ago, there were questions surrounding the team, just as there are every year with every team.

But those questions all centered around the offense, and whether or not the team would even have an offense without a certain quarterback wearing No. 4 on his jersey.

But Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre's clipboard-toting protégé over the previous three seasons, stepped in and performed admirably in his debut season, while running back Ryan Grant showed considerable potential as the leader of the Green Bay ground game.

This year, the concerns in Green Bay surrounded the defense. After switching to a 3-4 in 2008, it was apparent that the team lacked the anchor who could play inside on the defensive line, prompting the team to select Boston College's B.J. Raji with the ninth pick in the 2009 draft. Shortly thereafter, the Packers traded up to snag USC's Clay Matthews, Jr., to fill one of the outside linebacker spots.

Raji has drawn considerable praise after taking over the middle of the defensive line during training camp.

"You don't look at him as a rookie anymore.," Dallas guard Montrae Holland said. "You can't do that – if you do that, you start underestimating people. But if you look at him as a player, and take in his strengths and weaknesses, you can better evaluate him that way."

Green Bay coaches have used Raji at end a little bit in obvious passing situations, but as the Cowboys prepare to face the Packers Sunday at Lambeau Field, Holland said the Dallas players and coaches aren't worried about what Raji might do at one of the outside line positions.

"The inside film is pretty good," Holland said. "They'll run him outside every now and then, but they drafted him to play him inside."

Green Bay's shift to the 3-4 has allowed the Packers to attack more aggressively, Holland said. The difference, he said, is that with fewer down linemen, there are more areas through which linebackers can be brought on blitzes.

"In years past, in the 4-3 defense, compared to their 3-4 now … it's just different, a different mentality that they have now," he said. "They always blitzed before, but the 3-4 just opens up a lot more areas for the blitzes to take place."

If the biggest schematic change is the switch to the 3-4, the biggest individual change is the move of former defensive end Aaron Kampman to a standup outside linebacker spot – a move at which Kampman originally balked. Kampman has just 2.5 sacks in the Packers' first eight games, but he remains perhaps the team's most feared pass rusher.

"Kampman is still a hard worker, and no matter where they play him, he's one of the top players in the league," Holland said. "I'll say it like this – when I'm evaluating him, and I have to block him, I don't care where he lines up … I'm going to have to bring my ‘A game.' He's a guy who has a great motor – he won't stop – and you just can't underestimate a guy like that, or he'll make you pay.

"They move him around, and try to create different matchups. They'll move him wherever they can. The down-three (defensive linemen) are pretty good, and we know the linebackers are good. It's the defense as a whole that's effective."

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