Raji Aced His Homework

B.J. Raji was selected to his first Pro Bowl last season but that wasn't good enough for him, the coaches or the staff. Armed with a knowledge of the defense's inner workings, B.J. Raji has become a playmaker by picking the right time to step outside the scheme.

B.J. Raji made the Pro Bowl last season.

That wasn't enough for Raji, nor was it enough for the coaches and decision-makers. The ninth pick of the 2009 draft, Raji had flashed dominant play in spurts in his first three seasons. With his career teetering between adequate and excellent, Raji took matters into his own hands during the offseason. He studied not just his role in the scheme but the scheme in its entirety in order to make more difference-making plays.

"The more you know, the better," Raji said. "It's one thing to know what you have to do, but once you understand how the defense works and understand where people are supposed to be, it makes it a lot easier."

It's paid off. Raji, even with no sacks and just three quarterback hits to his credit, is playing some of the best football of his career. Last year, in 937 snaps, Raji had 10 stops, defined by ProFootballFocus.com as a tackle that resulted in an offensive failure (such as holding a first-down play to 3 yards or less or a third-down play short of the first down). That's a rate of one in every 93.7 snaps. In 2010, Raji had 31 stops in 1,092 snaps, a rate of one in every 35.2. In 2012, Raji has 15 stops in 562 snaps, a rate of one in every 37.5. He's got 10 stops in the last four games, a rate of one in every 20.7 snaps.

"It's a byproduct of me talking to some people upstairs and asking what they expected of me," Raji said. "They want me to play and be myself and make plays, and that was kind of a relief to hear.

"I just realize to get to where we want to get to as a team, I need to play better," Raji added. "A lot of times, scheme is good but you need the players to play out of the scheme and make some plays. The last couple of weeks, I was able to do that and I plan to do it the remainder of the season and the remainder of my career here."

For Raji, it started in the offseason.

"One of the things he talked to me about in the offseason was teaching him the whole scheme of the defense," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "'Which gap is open? Which gap is free? What's Dom (Capers) thinking when he's making this call?' Stuff like that. ‘In Dom's mind, when he makes that call, what's going through his mind? Is he thinking run? Is he thinking pass? Is he thinking screen?'"

In Green Bay, Raji never will produce like, say, Detroit's Ndamukong Suh. Rather than charging up the field at the snap in hopes of getting to the quarterback, the defensive linemen in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' scheme mostly are asked to take up blocks to allow the linebackers to make plays.

Raji is still playing that role. However, with that increased knowledge of the defense, he's given himself an opportunity to be the playmaker rather than just a setup guy. Between education and experience, Raji knows when to pick his spots and isn't putting his hunger to make a play ahead of his role on any given call by Capers.

"More importantly, (it's) knowing when to do it," Raji said. "I don't want to leave two linemen to be able to get up on Brad (Jones) or A.J. (Hawk). It's an instinct thing and being able to read splits and read offensive linemen's body language. You don't want to be doing it every play, because that would be a problem."

About the only area in which Raji has not improved is sacks. After recording one sack in limited duty as a rookie in 2009, he had 6.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits in 2010 and three sacks and 10 hits last season, according to the coaches' tally. This year, he has no sacks and three hits. Trgovac, however, is encouraged rather than discouraged.

"Particularly in this defense, it's different for these guys than it is for some of these college guys, where it's basketball on grass," Trgovac said. "It's different to come into this defense, where you're not just flying off the ball every time. It's easy to teach that kind of stuff. The discipline of the game and that type of stuff is harder. I told him the other day at practice, ‘I know you don't have a sack but your pass rush is not even close to the way you were. Your rush is so much better this year. Sacks will come. Don't get discouraged. Keep pushing that pocket.'"

Whether the "sacks will come" remains to be seen, but the Packers would be thrilled to get Raji's overall production during these final two regular-season games and into the postseason. These are the games that define a player. They were the plays Raji made during the playoff run two years ago, when he had a sack against Atlanta, four quarterback hits against Chicago and, on ProFootballFocus.com's count, six quarterback hurries in the Super Bowl.

"He's obviously a premier player and we need him to be a premier player," Trgovac said.

Raji said he has regrets about how last season ended. He doesn't want those regrets this time.

"I was just playing the scheme (last season)," Raji said. "Getting a little older and knowing the magnitude of these games coming up – the coaches can draw up a scheme but, ultimately, the players make the defense. A lot of plays that I made last week and the last couple weeks, they haven't necessarily been designed for me to make them but it's the time of year when the competition's getting better and you've got to make plays. That's what I'm trying to do. When I was doing this in 2010, we had a good result, and I want to continue that."

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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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