The biggest thing the Green Bay Packers defense has been lacking over the past three seasons is difference makers. Every great defense in the NFL has them and they are essential to a dominant defense. Unfortunately, the Packers have been lacking these kinds of players recently and if their defense is going to improve in 2014, they need more of them to come to the forefront.
Defensive lineman B.J. Raji used to be considered an impact player on the Green Bay defense. Going to back to 2010 when he registered 6.5 sacks and even in 2011, when he notched three sacks and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl, Raji was a difference maker. However, over the past two seasons, his impact has faded.
During the past two seasons, Raji did not register a single sack and was credited with just 29 tackles. That was a big reason why when he hit the market as a free agent in March, the interest among other teams was lukewarm. In the end, Raji took a one-year, prove it deal with Green Bay that was worth $4 million and gave him the opportunity to show everyone that he is still the player he was just a few short years ago.
In his defense, the Packers have not utilized Raji very well over the past couple of seasons, moving him to defensive end in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense instead of having him play the nose, which he did in 2010 and 2011.
At 6-2, 334-pounds, putting Raji on the edge of the defensive line as a 5-technique was a mistake. He is much better when lining up directly over the center and can bulldoze his way into the backfield. Despite his lack of numbers over the past two seasons, Raji is still a very powerful man, who is not easy to move off the ball.
Therefore, one of the big selling points to get Raji to return to Green Bay was the promise that he would move back to nose tackle where he has been the most effective throughout his career. Head coach Mike McCarthy personally sold Raji on switching back and sold the big man from Boston College on his vision for the defense in 2014, which is going to be more multiple and versatile to combat injuries and modern day NFL offenses.
So far the reports from Packers’ OTA’s are that Raji is in good shape and seems very motivated, which he should be because if he flops this season, then he will have a difficult time even getting the $4 million he got from Green Bay this offseason.
However, Raji is not far removed from being one of the best interior pass rushers and nose tackles in the game and with a change back to a position that best suits his skills, there is no reason why he can’t return to his Pro Bowl form in 2014.
As a defensive lineman, Raji’s numbers will never be eye-popping. In fact, some of the best nose tackles in the league have get few sacks and tackles. Yet, their impact is felt by those around them.
Raji’s greatest value to the defense is not making tackles in the backfield or even sacks, although he should notch a few of each, his biggest impact is keeping offensive lineman off linebackers, getting penetration into the backfield and pushing the middle of the pocket in pass rush situations, making it easier for edge rushers to close in on the quarterback.
A truly dominant nose tackle is a force in the middle of the defense that clogs things up and makes getting any yardage up the middle of the field a difficult thing to do. That is what the Packers need because while the team did struggle against the pass, it was even worse against the run.
Raji may not have a 6.5 sack season like he did back in 2010 but he doesn’t need to do that in order to be an impact player again. He needs to dominate the middle of the offensive line, getting push on passing downs and blowing things up when teams try to run. Essentially, he needs to make it so difficult to deal with him, that other defenders get less attention and are opened up to make plays. That is what a great nose tackle does and that’s what Raji is capable of doing once again this season.