GREEN BAY – Back in Ahman Green’s heyday as the Green Bay Packers’ featured back, the team’s offensive coaches always intended to give him a breather during games but struggled to do so for fear of missing out on one of Green’s signature explosive runs.
After all, when Green set a franchise record with 1,883 yards rushing and 20 total touchdowns in 2003, every time he touched the ball was a chance for him to go the distance.
Nowadays, the Packers’ defensive coaches have a similar dilemma with defensive end B.J. Raji.
While his gig isn’t the glamor position of franchise running back – quite the opposite, it’s primarily his job to stuff opposing featured backs – defensive coordinator Dom Capers and defensive line coach Mike Trgovac have the same problem with Raji: He’s too good to take off the field.
“I’d like to get him down a little bit (in terms of snaps), but it’s hard to take him out,” Trgovac confessed.
But are all those snaps catching up to Raji and making him less effective?
Raji enters Monday night’s game against the Minnesota Vikings having played a higher percentage of his team’s snaps (481 of a possible 549, or 87.6 percent) than any other defensive lineman in the league, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Against San Diego last Sunday, Raji played 66 of the Packers’ 75 snaps and had one quarterback pressure on the Chargers’ 46 passing plays when he was in the game.
The snap numbers are even higher than last season, when including playoffs Raji played 1,092 of 1,282 snaps, or 85.2 percent of the Packers’ defensive plays.
Including playoffs, Raji finished with 35 quarterback pressures, including 7.5 sacks, last year. This season, Raji has 11 pressures and two sacks.
“’Trgo’ does the best he can. Depending on the situation, he’ll look to me and he’ll give me a thumbs up or down and I’ll give him a thumbs up and tell him I’m good and he’ll leave me in,” Raji explained. “People like Clay (Matthews) aren’t coming out, so it’s not like I’m the only person who’s playing a lot. You just suck it up and do your best to get up the field.
“(Against the Chargers), I was to the point where I was tapping my helmet (to come out). I was too tired. That’s just the way it’s been since I started. It’s fine. You only get 16 opportunities. No one’s raising their hand to come out of the game. We’re playing 45 to 60 snaps. It’s not like we’re playing every day of the week. I’ve got to keep fighting and pushing through.
“A perfect example would be, (Trgovac) would rather take me out on third down. The reason I worked myself into better shape is I wanted more opportunities to rush on third down. So, he’s not going to take me out on first down because we need to stop the run. If he’s going to take me out, he’s going to take me out on a third-and-long situation where another guy could come in and help.”
With defensive end Mike Neal yet to play this season because of a training-camp knee injury, the Packers have had only five defensive linemen active for all eight games so far this season. Two of them – Ryan Pickett and Howard Green – are run-stuffers who generate little pass rush, meaning Raji, Jarius Wynn and C.J. Wilson are Trgovac’s only options in passing situations, and Wynn and Wilson have yet to show that they can generate pressure consistently. (Trgovac calls them “good battlers,” which is a kind way of saying that they try hard but aren’t particularly productive.)
That can become an issue in games where the Packers have the lead – they’ve yet to trail in the fourth quarter this season – or are playing a pass-oriented offense.
“We’ve only got five active on game day. With all the nickel stuff that we play, you really don’t want ‘Pick’ and Howard in there,” Trgovac said. “That’s not what they’re built for. So, you’re down to three guys.”
That’s why Raji could be the biggest beneficiary of Neal returning to action. While Neal may not be ready for Monday night’s game against the Vikings, once he is cleared he could not only spell Raji on occasion but take some of the attention away from him when he is rushing the passer.
That said, Raji also explained that in Capers’ scheme, with stopping the run the focus, he’s not truly getting as many opportunities to go after the quarterback as it may seem. When he’s in a “shade” technique, his gap responsibility is his top priority; when he’s in a “jet” technique, his job is to get upfield.
“I can’t control what we call. Some games are more of a liking to a defensive lineman,” Raji explained. “This game (against the Chargers) was a mix of both. If I’m playing ‘shade’ 95 percent of the time and I do get one or two ‘jets,’ I have to win those.”
Asked if he’s getting as many “jet” plays as last season, Raji replied: “No. but no one is. Clay’s not either. Our best pass-rusher isn’t really getting the best opportunities, either. But he’s just playing and trying to do what he can for the defense, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Of course, even with his snap count approaching 1,000, Raji played his best football late in the season last year, when he had four of his regular-season sacks in the final five games and added another sack and his 18-yard interception return for a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game in the playoffs. That could happen again this year, with eight regular-season games to go.
“This is how I look at it, man, because I get this all the time, ‘Man, your sacks are down.’ If people are watching the game, through 13 weeks last year, I only had 2.5 sacks. And then it started to pick up,” Raji said. “I know what’s going through everybody’s head, that I had 6.5 sacks (last year), but it’s tough. Sunday, I missed a bunch, I could’ve had one or two but (Chargers quarterback Philip) Rivers got rid of the ball. Clay’s whooping butt, but he’s not getting there. A lot of stuff we’re doing, it’s not like Clay and everybody is just running up field every play. You get some opportunities, you can say you have to win your 1-on-1 battles, but it’s tough.
“For where I want to get to as a player, I’m going to have to keep fighting to get past that. Who knows? I could start building some success, start having some sacks.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.