But Raji looked no worse for wear in Week 15 against New England last Sunday, putting together perhaps the best performance of his young career, considering his competition across the line.
Matched up for a good portion of the evening against Patriots guard Logan Mankins, a two-time Pro Bowler, Raji more than held his own and penetrated New England’s backfield on multiple occasions. He recorded the first two-sack game of his career, stuffed running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis twice for no gain, and had a 3-yard tackle for loss on Green-Ellis wiped out when the Packers accepted a holding penalty on the Patriots.
“They had a good battle,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “B.J. won his share, and (Mankins) won his. On a couple of those (big plays), he was on the move, so he’s not waiting for where the block goes. When he gets that chance to go, he’s disruptive like that.”
By “on the move,” Trgovac means defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ calls had Raji slanting at the snap to one side or the other into gaps, rather than sitting and anchoring in the middle. Capers will do that with his down linemen to change things up, or as a game-plan decision depending on the opponent’s offensive line scheme, and it can allow Raji to use more of his short-area quickness to get off blocks.
On both of his sacks, Raji exploded through openings to get to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. On one of them, the Patriots made a protection adjustment against a blitz and mistakenly left running back Danny Woodhead alone to block Raji. The 195-pound Woodhead didn’t stand a chance against the 340-pound Raji.
“I was just trying to play hard and trust the guys around me,” Raji said. “Those guys were getting pressure, making Brady step up and stuff like that. I just kept working and executing some moves I’ve been working on.”
Raji’s workload continues to be high, but it’s hard to get him off the field. Right before his second sack against the Patriots, Trgovac tried to send Jarius Wynn in to give Raji a breather, but Trgovac said Raji waved him off.
Trgovac has given Raji the latitude to do that if he’s feeling OK. In that instance, the Packers had possessed the ball for the first 10 minutes of the third quarter – the Patriots had returned an interception for a touchdown earlier in the quarter, so their offense hadn’t gotten the ball yet – and it was just the third play of New England’s ensuing series. Including the halftime break, Raji had gotten at least a half-hour rest, so he was fine.
But Trgovac has remained conscious of Raji’s snap count as it has climbed this season. In the first six games, he nearly matched his snap total from all of his rookie 2009 season, and he continues to be the workhorse of the defensive line this year. He leads the unit in tackles and is the only lineman to start every game. His career-high 5½ sacks rank third on the team and second among the linemen behind Cullen Jenkins’ seven.
“Evaluating myself as his position coach, I look at it and say, ‘Where are the opportunities I can take him out of the game?’” Trgovac said. “(Sunday) was one of those games he wasn’t overly tired. Obviously I’d love to have him out there, but I don’t want to wear him down as well. When we get back on Sunday night or Monday morning and I look at the plays he played, I’m always looking for opportunities to give him a rest. But he’s always such a comfort zone for me because he’s playing at such a high level.”
Capers used a similar word, saying it’s “comforting” to have a player with the size and agility of Raji as the all-important nose tackle in his 3-4 defense. Capers said he’s not as concerned about Raji wearing down from his workload because he’s just a second-year guy as opposed to a 10-year veteran, and he believes it’s the amount of work Raji has put in – work he didn’t get as a rookie when he missed part of training camp due to his contract situation, injured his ankle in the last preseason game, and then played more end than nose tackle upon returning – that has helped make him such an impact player.
“B.J. has played consistent for us all year,” Capers said. “I’m just pleased that he’s been able to stay on the field and stay healthy, and he’s improved because of that. I think some of the plays you saw him make (Sunday) night was a result of that.”
That Raji’s big game came at New England was interesting in several respects. First, a Boston College alum, he was playing for the first time as a pro in front of some of the same fans who cheered him on in college.
Second, the game was a prime-time broadcast on national television less than a week before all of the NFL’s players and coaches, who count as two-thirds of the process, will cast their Pro Bowl votes (the rosters will be announced next Tuesday). And third, he performed like that against Patriots players whose own teammate, nose tackle Vince Wilfork, is a two-time Pro Bowler considered the gold standard at the position.
Whether or not Raji, a first-round draft pick (No. 9 overall) last year, has earned enough respect around the league to pile up Pro Bowl votes is difficult to say. But Trgovac believes it’s only a matter of time.
“B.J. will be there at some point in his career,” Trgovac said. “Sometimes it takes a couple years.
“If B.J. keeps working and doing what he does and has games like that on national TV, he’ll get his due process, because he’s a big physical guy. I think the players when they vote, they know who they have a rough time blocking and who they don’t have a rough time blocking.”
Working against Raji is the fact that there’s no specific “nose tackle” spot on the Pro Bowl roster, so he’s judged against all defensive tackles and some 3-4 ends who are viewed as tackles. Also, Wilfork (a first-round draft pick in 2004) didn’t make his first Pro Bowl until his fourth season, a reflection of Trgovac’s point that the recognition doesn’t come overnight.
“Vince has been in the league for a long time, so obviously he’s seen a lot more snaps than B.J.,” Capers said. “I do think this – from Year 1 to Year 2, B.J. has made great strides. He’s certainly a big part of our defense now, and I think he’s going to be a big part of our defense moving ahead.”