Coaches Find Raji's Too Good To Take Out

On a percentage basis, no defensive lineman in the NFL is playing more than B.J. Raji. Regardless of the situation, he's the guy the Packers want on the field. But is it limiting his production after a breakout 2010 season?

Only New England's Vince Wilfork has played more snaps per game among defensive linemen than Green Bay Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji.

So, if anyone deserved to kick up his feet during Sunday's bye, it was Raji.

"I think so," Raji said when asked Wednesday if the bye came at a good time. "This is my second year (playing a lot of snaps) so I'm kind of used to it. Anytime you're coming back from a long break, you've got camp and you've got a long seven games of playing 85 percent of the snaps, you get a few days off, it definitely helps you."

According to snap counts kept by ProFootballFocus.com, Wilfork has played in 431 defensive snaps compared to 415 by Raji. As a percentage, however, Raji is ahead, having played 87.6 percent of the defensive snaps compared to 87.2 percent for Wilfork.

Nobody on the Packers' coaching staff is thrilled about the burden on the 337-pounder who has more than earned his keep as the ninth overall pick of the 2009 draft. But Raji is so good and so valuable that getting him out of the game is easier said than done.

Under defensive coordinator Dom Capers, stopping the run is of paramount importance. So, having Raji on the field on first down is considered a must. And as clearly the best of the Packers' interior pass rushers, having Raji on the field is considered a must in passing situations — whether it's third-and-long in the first quarter or the opponent is in catch-up mode in the fourth quarter.

"I'd like to get him down a little bit but it's hard to take him out," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said before the bye. "When I get a chance to take him out, I do. What happens is, we've been fortunate to get up on some people where you kind of take Howard (Green) and Pick (Ryan Pickett) out of the game at that point and you're really only rotating three guys in there. Some teams have gone no-huddle on us where it's hard to substitute a guy. You put him out there in the beginning (of the series) and it's hard to get a replacement for him. We've only got five active on gameday. With all the nickel stuff that we play – we played 55 snaps of nickel (against St. Louis in Week 6). We're up 24-3 and you really don't want Pick and Howard in there. That's not what they're built for. So, you're up 24-3 at halftime and you're down to three guys."

Last season, Raji played 85.2 percent of the defensive snaps (including playoffs). Rather than being worn down, he played his best football at the end of the season. This year, however, there are some subtle signs that the snap count has taken a toll.

In the first three games, the Packers allowed 55.0 rushing yards per game. By the Packers' count, he had three quarterback hits, and by ProFootballFocus.com's count, he had seven pressures.

In the last four, they allowed 137.5 rushing yards per game, including 218 at Minnesota. By the Packers' count, he's had one quarterback hit, and by ProFootballFocus.com's count, he had one pressure.

Or course, Raji isn't to be blamed for a leaky run defense when there are 10 other players on the field, but he's made few impact plays — run or pass — against some pretty soft interior offensive lines.

"Worn down? No, I don't think worn down's a good word," Raji said. "Obviously, you're playing hard, you're going to get tired in games. Coach's doing the best he can to rotate us. I take it as an honor that he thinks I can play well 85 percent of the snaps. If he didn't think so, I wouldn't be out there."

After a holdout and injuries sabotaged Raji's rookie season, he had a big year in 2010 with 6.5 sacks in the regular season — the third-most by a nose tackle since 1990 — and another in the playoffs. Between his breakout season and Cullen Jenkins' free-agent departure, Raji entered this season with an enormous bull's-eye on the front of his jersey, and he's seen more double-team blocks this year than last. After collecting a sack in Week 2 against Carolina, Raji was held without a sack until Week 7, when he was the closest player to Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder when he ran out of bounds. He had 66 tackles last season. This year, he's on pace for 57.

"Oh, yeah," Raji said when asked if he was disappointed in his sack total. "Definitely. Definitely. Definitely. I can do some things better. In our defense, it's not like every other defense. I have to learn to work with what I have and do a better job transitioning when I recognize it's a pass. I think I'll get there."

Of course, Raji's role in the Packers' defense is much different than, say, Jenkins' role in the Eagles' defense.

"We are a run team," Trgovac said. "We did a lot of the set-up stuff. I don't really care about sacks. B.J.'s playing fine. He's a 340-pound kid. He's not going to be a (top pass rusher). I think everyone wants to compare him to (Detroit's Ndamukong) Suh or someone like that, but that's not how we play. We don't play like that. Sacks will come for him. With the things that we're asking him to do, he's fine."


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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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