The reason is pretty simple. Sure, Raji is becoming more comfortable with the professional game after a lengthy training camp holdout. He's more confident in the defense. His technique is improving. But the big thing is Raji is finally healthy.
"It's as simple as that," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said on Friday.
Raji sprained an ankle in his preseason debut against Tennessee, and it took him a while to get back to full strength. He was held out of the first two games, and tweaked the injury a few weeks later against Detroit.
But Raji has three tackles in each of the last two games and recorded his first quarterback last week against Dallas.
"When you watched him early in the Tennessee game, you saw a good player," Trgovac said. "He hurt his ankle, and when you're a big guy and that's what you rely on — your power — it's hard for him. He's really starting to feel comfortable with that leg. It feels good again. His whole game is power and exploding off into people. He just didn't have that early in the year. It wasn't like he was playing terrible, but you didn't see that explosion that that kid has."
Raji agreed with Trgovac's assessment, and pointed to the ankle as the reason for other flaws in his game early in the season.
"Some of it was the ankle," he said earlier in the week. "Some of it's technique, as well. When you're not able to execute a rep in practice the way you're being taught, it might sound cliché, but it's what you're doing in the game. So, the more I'm able to be healthy and execute and take the coaching in and use it, the better I'll be in the games. The last couple weeks, I've been able to be healthy enough to execute in practice, and I think it's paying off in the games."
Raji's timing has been helpful for the Packers' superlative defensive line. When the Packers changed schemes, there were major questions about ends Cullen Jenkins and Johnny Jolly and, to a lesser extent, tackle Ryan Pickett. Instead those three have been tremendous and are the big reason why the Packers rank fourth in the NFL in yards allowed per rush (3.5). With defensive coordinator Dom Capers using the nickel package far more often than the base 3-4 alignment, Jenkins and Jolly — as the line's best combination of run stoppers and pass rushers — regularly were playing 50 or 60 snaps per game when Raji was limited.
Against Dallas, however, Jenkins and Jolly both played less than 50 snaps while Raji played 27. The ability to keep those two fresh will be "huge," Trgovac said, as the Packers enter the stretch run.
Trgovac credits Raji for fighting through the pain, even when he was at far less than 100 percent.
"When you're 330 pounds and you're taking on guys that are 330 and taking on 600 pounds of double team, it's hard," Trgovac said. "He tried to fight through it and he did a good job of fighting through it, but I think you're starting to see his explosiveness."
Still, Raji knows he has a long ways to go to become the type of player that he, the organization and the fans expect. His hit on Romo was the first time he's gotten to the quarterback. Raji was the big man on campus at Boston College and in the ACC, but in the NFL, he's just another big guy — even at 337 pounds. Take, for instance, his matchup last week with Leonard Davis. The two-time Pro Bowler is officially 6-foot-6 and 351 pounds but is probably closer to 375. His nickname, "Bigg," says it all.
"He was stronger than most of the guys I've played against, taller in stature, longer arms and a seasoned veteran," Raji said. "He's seen it all and played against pretty much everyone there is to play against. I'm a rookie, he's not really intimidated by myself."
Raji knows he's not intimidating too many people just yet. Like he said, the film doesn't lie, and that early-season film isn't what he expects of himself.
"I'm happy when I'm winning," he said. "Obviously, you have individual battles in the game. The last two, three weeks, I think I've been doing a pretty good job."
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