Raji adjusts to new role in 2013
GREEN BAY—Two, three years ago, B.J. Raji wouldn't have been cool with this.
When the Green Bay Packers defense turns to nickel, to dime, he's been on the sideline. Powerless. With a chance to pad his stats—in, ahem, a contract year—the defensive end is on hold.
Raji insists this isn't difficult, not even with millions of dollars at stake.
“You know what? No, no,” Raji said. “To do that, you have to be secure in yourself as a player and I am. I believe I'm one of the best in the league.”
Maybe you've noticed. Through three games, there's been less Raji. He hasn't been featured as a pass rusher, giving way to Mike Daniels, Datone Jones and Mike Neal. The Packers, for now, have significantly reduced Raji's snaps. After 51 snaps in the base-heavy season opener, he has played 32 and 31 snaps. He isn't being used as a penetrating, disruptive force.
Repeatedly, Raji says he's fine with this.
The player who stepped in the middle of the Aaron Rodgers/Mike McCarthy firefight is trying to help the Packers in new ways.
“It's funny, man. The older I get, I understand,” Raji said. “I'm obviously trying to be the best at my position within the scheme, but I'm trying to grow more to be a better teammate, be a better leader, because I understand the bigger goal. … My snaps are cut down. But I can still grow in other areas and do more than just plays on the field.”
The stat line is underwhelming. Three games in, Raji has a grand total of five tackles, no sacks.
To him, there's perception and there's reality as a defensive lineman. In this role, there's a good chance you won't hear Raji's name called often in 2013. You won't see sacks. You probably won't see much dancing in the end zone. You will see Raji used as a plug against the run, emerging from a pile-up with a wag of the finger.
This week, Green Bay faces a pair of interior linemen given free rein to shoot upfield. Not so in the Packers' 3-4 scheme. Raji promises, “I'm OK with that.” If the final outcome is a Super Bowl, he adds, “I'd take that trade any day.”
This was a point of maturation, acceptance for a player who totaled 6½ sacks in 2010.
“It's cool to hear your name on TV and everything,” Raji said. “But I'm more concerned about how this organization and this coaching staff and these scouts view me as opposed to outside perception. I've been blessed. I went to a Pro Bowl, I won a Super Bowl. I've experienced the individual stuff.
“I've also been there when we've lost close games in the season. I'd rather my role kind of be split among other guys and we win more games than me being out there and us coming up short in the end.”
This is why Raji says he respects players like Geno Atkins, Haloti Ngata, Vince Wilfork.
“They can't just jet upfield,” Raji said. “If they get reached, they have to get hands on them. You can't just swim. Those guys, the Wilforks, Justin Smith, those guys they get a lot of respect around the league.”
Seeing Raji play peacemaker on the sideline at Cincinnati shouldn't be a surprise, either. He's looking to speak up and step in this season—especially at his position.
The first, maybe the second time Mike Trgovac ever met Raji, the defensive line coach had a direct message. This was a new defensive staff with a new scheme. The ninth overall pick, Raji was pegged as a cornerstone. So during that rookie orientation, Trgovac told Raji that in four, five years, he'd need to “lean heavy” on him; he'd need someone to bring younger players along. A player-coach of sorts.
This week, Trgovac brought that conversation up to Raji again. In the meeting room, Trgovac said the 27-year-old is speaking up more. The coach will stop meetings to let Raji make a point to the entire group.
And this whole snap count is subject to change. Trgovac wants Raji to stay ready. There will be a time, he says, the 6-foot-2, 337-pounder will be let loose again. For now, less is more and the run defense is benefiting.
Any looming uncertainty with Raji's contract hasn't been an issue from Trgovac's perspective.
“He has not been a problem in our meeting room,” Trgovac said. “B.J. wants this team to be good, wants this team to win. And I think he's been a good team player right now. That's what's important to him.”
It's hard to argue with Green Bay's logic. This might be the most versatile defensive line Dom Capers has had since arriving in 2009. The defensive coordinator has a full menu of different body types and styles to choose from.
“I like our D-Line. I've said that from the beginning,” Capers said. “I feel like we've got guys who play different roles.”
For now, that means a lot of Daniels and Jones and Neal in passing situations. For now, that means less Raji…all in a contract year.
No, the timing is not ideal for a player hoping to cash in. His value must go beyond the numbers. Sitting in his locker, Raji again says that's perfectly fine.
If he does his job, he believes the Packers, the NFL, everyone will notice.
“I feel that prior in my career, I'd feel a certain way about that,” Raji said. “Now, I'm looking at it as this is what coaches feel give us the best chance to win. I'm all for it.
“It's not just about me.”