Nothing, Not Even Fatigue, Can Stop Raji

B.J. Raji made a quantum leap during a second season in which he kept producing despite a ridiculously heavy workload. The NFL's premier young nose tackle looks back on what he accomplished and looks forward to the coming season.

Houston Texans running back Arian Foster was named the NFL's most improved player by the Pro Football Writers of America after last season. While Foster was practically a no-brainer, with the former undrafted free agent going from 257 rushing yards and no touchdowns as a rookie to a league-high 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns, a good case could have been made for the Green Bay Packers' B.J. Raji.

Due in large part to a two-week holdout and sprained ankle, Raji had a minimal impact in 2009 after being made the ninth overall pick of the draft. Including the playoffs, he played in 15 games with one start, finishing with just one sack and three quarterback hits in 380 total snaps.

In 2010, Raji emerged as one of the NFL's top nose tackles. Starting all 20 games, Raji recorded 7.5 sacks and 18 quarterback hits. Perhaps most impressive of all was the stamina shown from a player listed at 337 pounds. He was on the field for 1,092 snaps — a stunning 85.2 percent of the time and the sixth-most on the team. He played less than 70 percent of the snaps in any given game just once — the playoff rout at Atlanta, which was practically a vacation at merely 67.3 percent.

Despite the incredible workload, Raji actually was at his best down the stretch. He had two sacks at New England in Week 15, one sack against the Giants in Week 16, a sack in the divisional game at Atlanta and four quarterback hits and his interception and touchdown in the NFC Championship Game at Chicago. As a team, the Packers allowed 117.0 rushing yards per game in the first 14 games but just 89.1 during the six-game run to the championship.

"Attention to detail," Raji said, explaining how he finished the season so strong when most big guys would have crumbled under the relentless workload. "You get to this level, especially as the season progresses, guys tend to relax a little bit. I tried to stay on myself, tried to stay worried about the techniques and the fundamentals of the game. Just let my ability take over and tried to prepare properly. The better you prepare, the faster you play on Sunday."


Raji at training camp.
Jeff Hanisch/US Presswire
That preparation has continued into this season. When defensive line coach Mike Trgovac arrived in his group's meeting room at 1:30 p.m. for its 2 p.m. Friday meeting, Raji was there watching film.

"B.J. came back in great shape," Trgovac said after Friday's practice. "He really looks quick. I think B.J., his mind-set right now is excellent. Even when we have time off in the meetings, he's doing extra studying. I think the sky's the limit for B.J. But you still have to develop them and come along. The thing you have to temper with B.J. is you have to remember what your role in this defense is sometimes. You're a nose guard. When we're in Okie defense (base 3-4), we're guys that butt blocks and keep guys off linebackers and stuff like that. Dom will do enough things to put him on the move and use his quickness."

After not getting on the field on Saturday night because of the abbreviated nature of the scrimmage, Raji echoed Trgovac in saying he needs to walk the fine line of doing the grunt work that's part of being a nose tackle while using his explosive ability to get into the backfield.

"I can do a lot to get better, like technique things," Raji said. "I still have some things to work on as far as understanding when I should take my shots. I have a playmaker mentality but have to understand what my teammates are doing around me so I don't put anybody in a bind."

Raji led all NFL nose tackles with 6.5 sacks during the regular season. He gave the credit to Trgovac and former teammate Cullen Jenkins.

"Cullen was more of a lead-by-example guy," Raji said. "He's a great friend, great guy to be around. He was a big part of my strides as a pass-rusher as the season went on. You could tell he had worked with me. He taught me a lot about patience and footwork and my approach to the quarterback. I'll always be thankful to him for that."

Jenkins' departure leaves a major void beyond his seven regular-season sacks. Is there anyone capable of joining Clay Matthews and Raji to give the defense a three-headed pass-rushing monster? And is there a defensive lineman — or defensive linemen — capable of eating up some snaps so Raji doesn't face such a tremendous burden?

"I'm all about winning," Raji said. "Last year, that's what they needed out of me. Mike Neal was injured last year and we had some other guys nicked up, so that played a big role into that. Hopefully, that won't be the case this year, but if need be, I'll be ready to do that. Anything to help us win."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.


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