GREEN BAY – The laugh said it all. B.J. Raji wasn’t confessing to anything, but the Green Bay Packers defensive tackle’s reaction to the premise qualified as tacit agreement. The rankings he would provide later would remove all doubt.
Last season, Raji was named to his first NFC Pro Bowl team. This week, he was left off the roster – he wasn’t even a first alternate – behind San Francisco’s Justin Smith, Chicago’s Henry Melton and Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy, the three interior linemen named to the NFC squad.
But herein lies the rub: Raji is arguably having the best season of his four-year NFL career. And if it isn’t his best season, it’s his second-best, behind his 2010 performance – another year that, incidentally, he failed to make the Pro Bowl.
So his two best seasons, he didn’t make the team; the year he did make the team, he didn’t have his best season?
“I don’t know. Who’s to say?” Raji said, still chuckling. “As far as the Pro Bowl goes, there’s a lot of good defensive linemen. I’m not going to make it every year. Those guys that made it, they deserve it. It’s one of those things you can’t control.”
But when asked to rank his past three seasons, Raji replied thusly: “I’m going to say ’10 would be No. 1, just because our defense was better (as a whole). This year would be No. 2, because I don’t care how well you’re playing, if your defense isn’t playing well, you can’t be that good. And then ’11 would be the third best.”
For as much as veteran center Jeff Saturday’s inclusion on the NFC roster – Saturday was benched by the Packers five days before being named to his sixth Pro Bowl team – has been cited as proof of how flawed the selection process is, Raji’s situation could be Exhibit B.
According to ProFootballFocus.com’s grading system, Raji is a plus-7.3 on the season, the best rating of his career. In 2010, he was a plus-6.4. Last year, he was a stunning minus-19.6. The well-respected website harshly criticized Raji’s selection to the Pro Bowl, and while he wasn’t among their three selections this season, his return to form has been undeniable.
“I think he worked hard in the offseason, he’s been able to stay relatively healthy and he’s a year older, a year wiser and he’s a year into the system more. He’s starting to understand what’s (expected),” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “He’s obviously a premier player and we need him to be a premier player.”
And he has. Entering Sunday’s regular-season finale against the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome, Raji has played 596 snaps (most on the defensive line) and registered 40 tackles. While he doesn’t have a sack, he has been credited with 20 quarterback hurries by ProFootballFocus.com, second only to four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews (23) on the team.
Last year, when Raji had three sacks, he was credited with only 16 hurries; in 2010, when he had both the performance and the big stat numbers to get to the Pro Bowl, he had 6.5 sacks and 24 hurries.
Even though he doesn’t have a sack this season – Raji admitted that he was, in the wake of his 6.5 sacks in 2010, too focused on trying to get them last year – Trgovac said it’s evident that Raji is rushing the passer better than ever.
“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. It’s different to come into this defense, where you’re not just flying off the ball every time,” Trgovac said. “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 you’re 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.’”
Trgovac and defensive coordinator Dom Capers have also developed so much trust in Raji that they’re allowing him to step outside the scheme – albeit not often – and take chances. That’s not a privilege Capers allows often.
“That’s part of the experience. You understand when you can take a chance and when you can’t, and you understand where the other people fit around you,” Trgovac explained. “One of the things he talked to me about in the offseason was teaching him the whole scheme of the defense: ‘Which gap is open? Which gap is free? What’s Dom 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?’ Stuff like that.
“It’s a calculated risk. You know where the other players around you are fitting. That’s one of the things he kept reiterating to me during the OTAs. ‘Teach me the whole scheme. Teach me where the outside linebacker is. Teach me where the inside linebacker is.’”
That has extended to Raji’s work against the run – his primary responsibility – as well. He’ll be vital in that area, of course, on Sunday, as the Packers try to prevent Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson from breaking the NFL’s single-season rushing record. Peterson needs 208 yards to top Eric Dickerson’s total of 2,105 in 1984, and after watching Peterson run through them for 210 yards in the first meeting, Raji doesn’t want to allow an encore.
“We don’t want (Peterson) to get it on us, but as far as everything else, he’s had a great year. He’s a great player,” Raji said. “(But) you don’t want to be that team where he’s celebrating on you. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Last year, in 937 snaps, Raji had 10 stops, or one every 93.7 snaps. A “stop” is 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).
In 2010, Raji had 31 stops in 1,092 snaps (one stop per 35.2 snaps). This season, Raji has 16 stops in 596 snaps, for a rate of one in every 37.25 snaps. Nine of those stops have come in the last five games.
“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.”
The Pro Bowl, meanwhile, can wait. If the Packers achieve the goal Raji has for this season, he wouldn’t be able to play in the game anyway – not with it being a week before Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
“I’ve been there when we got on a run. I feel like my team needs me, and I plan to be there for them every single week and play as hard as I can. And that’s what I can control,” Raji said.
“I’m blessed, man. I have nothing to complain about. I’ve been there (to the Pro Bowl) before, I got bigger sights this year. I’m trying to get to the Super Bowl again. That’s where my mind is.
“There’s no hard feelings. This way is fine for me. Last year, I was in, I was happy. This year, I didn’t get in, I’m not really upset, but as a player you’d like to get in. It happens. Some years, you’re going to have a good year and not make it – I’ve been through that. Other years, you’re going to say, ‘I did OK, I did all right,’ and you wind up in the Pro Bowl. It’s just how it works.”
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