Raji Set To Be Every-Down Factor

The Packers handed last year's top draft pick, B.J. Raji, the starting nose tackle position this offseason. Though that position does most of the dirty work in the 3-4 scheme, Raji will be counted on to do more than just that.

There might not be another Packers player with a more physically demanding job assignment this season than B.J. Raji.

The second-year nose tackle will be counted on heavily to anchor the middle of the Packers' defense in their base 3-4 scheme. He will spend much of his time engaged in one-on-one battles with opposing centers, though that is just his starting point.

Raji — unlike last year's starter at nose, Ryan Pickett — is also No. 1 on the depth chart for many of the Packers' sub packages. That means if Raji stays healthy and fresh, he will hardly ever spend time on the sideline this season, a situation he is ready for.

"Repetition is a part of learning," said Raji. "I always feel like the more reps I get in practice, the more confidence the coaches have in me as far as being in different packages. So, it's going fine so far."

At the top of the list when the Packers come out of their base 3-4 alignment is their nickel defense, which again figures to be one of their most used sub packages considering the NFL has become a pass-happy league. In that package, Raji teams with end Cullen Jenkins in a two-down lineman front flanked by two outside linebackers.

Raji got a taste of that package as a rookie a year ago, but more often than not Johnny Jolly teamed with Jenkins along the front. Now with Jolly suspended for the season and Pickett playing defensive end, Raji has stepped up into that role — and he just must give the Packers some pass rush improvement, whether going after the quarterback or occupying blockers to set others free.

He flashed some big-play ability in Thursday night's practice. Lined up wide in nickel, Raji batted down one pass and deflected another into the air for an interception.

"I think B.J.'s overall whole game has improved," said defensive line coach Mike Trgovac. "He's improved as a nickel rusher. We didn't get a lot of work at that with him last year particularly because he wasn't in training camp and then he got hurt. But I think he's working hard at being a nickel rusher. He's a power rusher. He's not going to be a finesse rusher. He's got a lot of leverage behind him and push."

Though 3-4 defensive linemen are secondary rushers to outside linebackers, this Packers unit could put a crack in the mold. Jenkins' 4.5 sacks in 2009 only underscored his strong season as a pass rusher (23 quarterback hits) after going public early last season about his desire to be cut loose to get after the quarterback. Jenkins and Raji's first priority will always be to stop the run, but the Packers will need help up front to give linebacker Clay Matthews some pass rush help.

The Packers are not yet ready to set Raji free, but there are encouraging signs. At the least, he has held off a group of promising young players making a push for time in the nickel — among them are Jarius Wynn and rookies C.J. Wilson and Mike Neal.

Neal, in particular, has opened some eyes this training camp. The second-round pick, according to Trgovac, is challenging Raji for time in sub packages. Preseason action will dictate any personnel change, but it is possible Neal could relieve Raji in some cases if the Packers are looking to get to the quarterback with their interior linemen.

"I think both of them have the ability to give us an inside pass rush as we go along here," said defensive coordinator Dom Capers. "B.J. has some experience from last year, and I think one of the things with Mike is that we feel he will improve as a pass rusher. He's strong and a pretty good athlete for that size."

Raji, however, has no intentions of being just a base defense guy. His bum ankle from a year ago is no longer an issue and he has separate personal trainers for cardio and weightlifting that he works with in the offseason back home in New Jersey. So he thinks he is ready physically and mentally to dominate like he did at Boston College.

"Last year was a little different for me because I was hobbling on the ankle all year pretty much," he said. "But my confidence is never as issue. I don't win every play, but my confidence still doesn't lack."

Because the Packers' coaching staff only has practice to go by and just limited game film on Raji (because he was just a part-time player in 2009), they can only project how the 337-pounder will hold up in his increased role.

Raji got increased work during individual drills and team drills at Thursday morning's practice with Jenkins and Pickett getting some "veteran rest" for two-a-days. He looked no worse for the wear, though, especially strong during the live team period at the end of practice.

"The most tiring thing in football is rushing the passer," said Capers. "You see it all the time when people get into 2-minute situations. If your guys wear out, you're not going to get any rush. And they can wear down because they're pushing on those big 320-pound guys every down and that's tiring.

"I think we'll have plenty of opportunities for those guys this year. We do so many different things with those guys up front."

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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