Not only must he maintain gap control at the point of attack so Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson can’t hit a hole quickly or find a cutback lane, but if Peterson doesn’t get the ball, Raji also will need to collapse the middle of the pocket as quickly as possible on quarterback Brett Favre.
Against offensive weapons that explosive, handling both of those duties for an entire game, and adjusting to perform one or the other within any given play after the snap, is difficult, thankless work. But it’s vitally important for a defense that cannot afford to let the Vikings find the same rhythm they did against the Packers in 2009.
If anything, though, Raji is ready for it. He’s been playing a boatload of snaps this season compared to his rookie campaign last year, and it seems the quality of his play has increased the more he’s out there. Add that extensive on-field time to the extra off-field time Raji has spent studying his opponents and game plans, and the Packers are hoping a challenge like Sunday night will provide the opportunity for Raji to show just how much he has developed as a pro.
“I see just a total change in the way that he’s preparing for games,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “His preparation has been excellent.
“A lot of kids come out of school, and you have the 20-hour rule (of maximum football participation time per week) in college. But I think he really wants to be good. He’s doing a lot of extra studying on his own, and that’s what it takes.”
As a result, Raji has successfully maintained a high level of play through a dramatic boost in his playing time.
Coming in last year as the No. 9 overall pick in the draft, Raji missed the early stages of training camp after signing late, badly sprained an ankle in the final preseason game, and then struggled to find solid footing while learning a new defensive scheme and playing slightly out of position at end in Dom Capers’ 3-4.
As the fourth down lineman behind Cullen Jenkins, Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly, Raji played more than 35 snaps in a game just once as a rookie. Missing two games entirely to the ankle injury and playing sparingly in up to four others in part because of the ankle, he saw a total of 360 snaps in the regular season, 36 percent of the defense’s 996 total.
This year has been a different story. Switched in the offseason to his more natural nose tackle spot as Pickett was moved to end, Raji came to training camp on Day 1 in great shape and has responded to the increased demands.
Injuries to defensive linemates Jenkins, Pickett, Justin Harrell and Mike Neal have contributed to Raji nearly matching his snap total from last season in the first six games this year. He has played 357 snaps already, including 65 or more in each of the last three games and a career-high 77 last week vs. Miami. He’s been on the field for 91 percent of the defense’s 393 snaps.
“Obviously experience is the best teacher,” said Raji, whose 18 tackles are tops on the defensive line and whose 2½ sacks rank third on the team behind Clay Matthews (8½) and Jenkins (4).
“We do a great job in the meeting rooms, but a lot of times with football, when it’s a reaction sport, experience and playing time in the game is actually the best way to get better. My rep count has been up this year, so I think as a result I’ve been playing a little better.”
Trgovac also sees him playing faster. The combination of experience and additional film study has sped up Raji’s reactions to plays, which in turn helps him shed blocks and find the ball.
He also has a better understanding of Capers’ scheme as a whole and the different responsibilities that come with being a down lineman in a 3-4 vs. a 4-3, an alignment in which Raji became a dominant force at Boston College.
“I think he’s matured a lot,” Capers said. “I think he’s using what he learned his rookie year to his advantage his second year. I think he has a better feel in terms of preparation. He’s been able to stay healthy to this point. He’s been playing an awful lot more snaps, and I think he’s been playing well.
“I see him in there watching more tape. He’s studying his game plans. He’s been able to stay on the practice field, which is a tremendous asset for us, because we haven’t had a lot of that. Guys that stay out there and practice get better.”
How much better Raji can get, no one is going to predict at this point. There’s some inevitable concern, however, about how long his 337 pounds can hold up under such a high snap count on a weekly basis. Facing a back like Peterson -- who is averaging 110 rushing yards per game and 4.9 per carry this season -- one week after the injury-ravaged run defense surrendered 150 yards on the ground on 39 carries to Miami will have many observers watching to see if Raji shows any signs of getting worn down.
Hopefully getting Pickett back from an ankle injury this week (he's questionable on the injury report) will help the run defense and Raji's workload. But at this point, he isn’t worried.
“The good thing for me is I’m a young player,” Raji said. “I don’t have seven, eight years in the league. I don’t have the wear-and-tear some of these other guys have, and my body is able to withstand the work that goes with playing in the trenches.”
Raji credits Trgovac for pushing him to prepare more and pay more attention to detail, whether that be with his techniques and fundamentals or his film study. Anyone who has attended a training camp practice knows Trgovac is as vocal as they come on the field, but he’s just as demanding off the field and it’s rewarding for him to see the dedication developing in a young player like Raji.
“I coach him very hard on that,” Trgovac said. “Like I tell him all the time, ‘Someday you’ll be a vet and you’ll be able to pass that information on to a young player.’
“That’s what my job is, to try to teach him how to be a true pro. He probably gets a little sick of me talking to him about the little things and staying after him about this and that, but hopefully when his playing career is done he’ll appreciate just that.”
With the nose tackle such a linchpin position in his 3-4, the defensive architect already does.
“I like the direction he’s heading,” Capers said. “If he continues to take the same approach, he’ll continue to improve because I think he’s got more of a feel for what it takes to have success at this level than what he did coming in.
“It’s a big transition from where he was last year, but he’s done well with it.”
Additional coverage – Oct. 22