If the B.J. Raji who dominated the Seahawks last Sunday can show up on Monday night against Kansas City and for the remainder of the schedule, the Green Bay Packers will be right in the thick of the Super Bowl hunt in late January.
Raji is coming off a statement game against Seattle. He was awarded a game ball by coach Mike McCarthy, who said it was the best game of Raji’s sometimes-dominant career. Raji, however, had little interest in basking in the afterglow this week.
I thought I played OK but I’m a big believer in pushing forward,” Raji said. “I’m not really the one to look back and say, ‘I’m going to play like I did.’ My knowledge has increased so I think if I put in the preparation, hopefully my performance will increase. That’s my goal. The past is the past. I’m just trying to move forward. That’s my goal.”
fter missing all of last season with a torn biceps tendon, Raji is off to a strong start. He’s been equally impressive against the run as the pass. According to league data, opponents are averaging 0.22 yards less per carry with Raji in the game than when on the sideline. In 2013, Raji had a total of 13 quarterback hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Through two games this season, Raji has seven and ranks No. 1 among all defensive tackles in PFF’s pass-rushing productivity.
More importantly, the Packers are 2-0 with a pair of strong performances under their belt entering Monday night.
“It’s meant a lot,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said of Raji’s impact on the defense. “You guys watched (the Seattle game). He’s definitely showing up. He’s doing a lot of great things. He’s a veteran guy, he’s won before. He’s a had a lot of success in his career and he’s showing that he is who he is. He’s a very dominant defensive tackle …
“Not playing for a whole year was tough for him but you can see how he turned it into a positive. He made it an advantage that he wasn’t playing by taking care of himself in a lot of ways that he wouldn’t have been able to had he been playing. He really refocused himself and it’s evident. When you watch the games, it’s obvious when you watch him play that he’s put a lot of work in during his down time.”
Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac also pointed to Raji’s time away as time well spent. Raji spent all of last season around the team. Always a film junkie, Raji’s come back sharper mentally and in better shape physically.
“He’s obviously older, more mature,” Trgovac said. “He’s at that point of his career where he’s got certain things down and then he has certain things that he can improve on and he’s really matured in understanding that he needs to work on the things he needs to improve on. He pays attention to it in meetings, he pays attention to it in practice. It all comes with age. Defensive line’s a tough position to learn. His weight is where it needs to be. The year of him just sitting down, he’s really focused right now.”
Against one-on-one blocks, Raji said it’s his job to “be a man” and beat the blocker and own the gap to his left and right. Raji was a man last week, when he dominated Seattle center Drew Nowak, which allowed Clay Matthews and the rest of the Packers’ linebackers to swarm Marshawn Lynch. So ineffective was the Seattle running game that Seahawks coach Pete Carroll scrapped that part of the game plan and went to the perimeter with quarterback Russell Wilson in the second half.
“You can definitely feel it as far as linemen getting up to the second level and getting in your face,” Matthews said. “But as far as the nuances of his position, I don’t think you can really appreciate it until you come in here and review the game film. And I think he did an outstanding job. We expect that from him. Him coming off injury, I think we all missed out on what he can do. And that’s what we expect, especially now getting back to that nose position where he’s got great leverage and great lateral movement. It only makes my job that much easier.”
Against the Chiefs, he will face impressive rookie center Mitch Morse, a left tackle at Missouri who Kansas City selected in the second round. His play will be key as the Packers face Jamaal Charles, who owns the fourth-best rushing average in NFL history and is a big play waiting to happen.
Raji’s counterpart will have a key role, as well. Last week, the Packers’ offensive tackles had problems stopping Seattle’s tremendous edge rushers, but the play of the interior line allowed quarterback Aaron Rodgers to repeatedly extend plays. Chiefs nose tackle Dontari Poe, however, had six sacks en route to making the Pro Bowl last season. It will be a challenge for Rodgers to evade outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali if Poe can bully his way into the backfield.
“Extremely good player. Extremely stout, extremely quick,” Packers center Corey Linsley said. “An all-around pretty good player. Talk about the edge guys all the time, you can’t forget about him and (defensive end Allen) Bailey, as well. Bailey is a heck of a player. I remember when we played them against the Miami of Florida back in college and I remember him being stout there, as well. They have a heck of a d-line and heck of a front seven, really. It’ll be a great challenge for us and a great opportunity to prove ourselves.”