Packers Film Study: B.J. Raji peaking late in the season

Packers DL B.J. Raji
Packers DL B.J. Raji
Packers DL B.J. Raji

When looking at the box score of a given football game, it can be easy to overlook some of the unsung heroes.

Sometimes it’s the offensive line paving the way for a 100-yard rusher and going largely unnoticed. Other times it’s a cornerback shutting down an opposing receiver, only to be ignored because he never got his hands on the ball.

On Sunday, defensive tackle B.J. Raji may have been the best player on the field for the Packers.

From his pick-six that sent the Packers to Super Bowl XLV in 2010 to his dominant performance on Sunday, it sure seems like Raji enjoys playing in the Windy City. Raji played what was likely his best game of the season with the NFC North championship on the line.

Pro Football Focus credited Raji with a +4.4 grade against the Bears–his best PFF grade since the NFC Championship during the 2010 season.

The box score only gives Raji credit for one solo tackle. No sacks, no forced fumbles. Just one tackle.

But looking beyond the numbers and watching the tape, it’s impossible to ignore Raji’s impact on Sunday’s win over the Bears.

Let’s take a look at four plays this past Sunday in which Raji made his presence felt.

1) Situation: 2nd and 9, 5:09 remaining – Q1

Breakdown: Raji lines up at right defensive end alongside Clay Matthews. Left guard James Brown is supposed to chip on Raji and block inside linebacker Brad Jones, but Raji blows the play up before even got started. Left tackle J’Marcus Webb is a split-second late getting to Raji.

Raji’s penetration single-handedly made this play, although Clay Matthews and Morgan Burnett were credited for the tackle in the box score. This was a drive-killer for the Bears, as they were ultimately forced to punt.

2) Situation: 2nd and 10, 1:05 remaining – Q1

Breakdown: Raji is lined up across from Bears right guard Gabe Carimi. As soon as the ball is snapped, Raji is in the backfield and the play is doomed.

Carimi is forced to lunge at Raji and is called for a 10-yard holding penalty. This play set up a 2nd-and-long situation for the Bears, and they didn’t score on the drive. Again, this is another play that won’t show up on the stat sheet, but it will certainly catch the eye of the coaching staff.

3) Situation: 3rd and 5, 15:00 remaining – Q2

Breakdown: Clay Matthews gets credit for the sack, but Raji had a lot to do with the play. On the first play of the second quarter, Raji is one of two down linemen along with Mike Neal.

Raji is lined up between right guard Gabe Carimi and right tackle Jonathan Scott. The right tackle is forced to kick out and account for a blitzing Erik Walden, leaving Carimi responsible to block Raji one-on-one. Needless to say, Carimi was once again no match for Raji.

Raji collapsed the pocket and left Jay Cutler with no room to escape. Clay Matthews gets the sack, and the Bears are forced to punt.

4) Situation: 1st and 10, 4:15 remaining – Q2

Breakdown: The Packers are in their base defense, with Raji at right defensive end. Again, he’s lined up between left guard James Brown and left tackle J’Marcus Webb.

In an attempt to prevent Raji from blowing up the play in the backfield once again, the Bears opt to double-team him. Raji splits the double-team and ends up a few yards deep in Chicago’s backfield. Also on this play, Webb gets away with a blatant hold as he has his arms completely wrapped around Raji.

His penetration forces Matt Forte to bounce the play to the outside, allowing A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones to clean up the play for no gain.

At one point during Sunday’s broadcast, Troy Aikman singled out Raji for playing well last week against the Lions. But the 337-pound lineman really outdid himself against the Bears.

Throughout the course of the game on Sunday, Raji made plays both as a run defender and a pass rusher. Just two games away from the playoffs, the Packers will need to be strong up front as there will certainly be no “gimmes” in the postseason.

Perhaps part of the reason why Raji has come on late in the season is that he’s finally getting over an early-season ankle injury. Raji missed two games this season, week six at Houston and week seven at St. Louis.

But since returning to the lineup, his play has been steadily improving. Below is a look at PFF’s grading for Raji over the course of 15 weeks this season.

B.J. Raji: PFF Grading
B.J. Raji: PFF Grading

As you can see, there is a lot more green in recent weeks than red.

In the 2010 season in which Green Bay reached Super Bowl XLV, the Packers hit their peak at just the right time and benefitted from several players stepping up. James Starks provided a much-needed boost for the ground game, unsung hero Howard Green was a key cog in the middle of the team’s defensive line, and the list goes on.

But this season, if Raji can keep up his current level of elite play, the Packers could become a serious threat to reach another Super Bowl. Don’t look now, but this under-the-radar Packers team could be peaking at just the right time.


Follow @MJEversoll

Marques is a Journalism student, serving as the Sports Editor of UW-Green Bay\'s campus newspaper The Fourth Estate and a Packers writer at Jersey Al\'s Follow Marques on Twitter @MJEversoll.


20 thoughts on “Packers Film Study: B.J. Raji peaking late in the season

    1. I agree, Chad. Neal has been better lately as well.

      Once the Packers get C.J. Wilson back from injury, this line could really be special.

      1. You can have a good front seven and “afford” to have a mediocre/bad secondary, but you can’t have a good secondary and afford to have a bad front seven IMO. We already have a good secondary, so If the men up front start to do their job, then this whole defense will start to look complete.

  1. I believe the D has been holding other teams to under 20 points the last 8 or 9 games. They have really come on and I think you are on to something with them peaking at the right time.

    I also notice that Raji takes good angles on plays where others are getting the tackle – to clean up if need be. You see it in the last clip.

    Thanks for putting it together.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      I agree with you, Raji constantly takes good angles and is at the right place at the right time. And you’re right, since the midpoint of the season, the defense has been playing quite well.

  2. I think sometimes people forget that defensive lineman in the 3-4 are supposed to take on blockers and provide a push to allow the linebackers to make plays. The linebackers are the stars and big playmakers in the 3-4.
    Great breakdown, Marques.

    1. You’re exactly right.

      The primary role for the down lineman in a 3-4 scheme is to eat up blockers. That’s why the season J.J. Watt is having in Houston is so incredible … 19.5 sacks as a 3-4 defensive end? Unbelievable.

      When he’s playing his best ball, Raji is among the most talented defensive linemen in football. This unit, at full strength, could make the Packers a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs.

        1. This is true, Lucas. Without a doubt.

          But still, Houston employs a 3-4 scheme and the 6-5 295-pound Watt has 19.5 sacks through 14 games. And that’s impressive.

          Aldon Smith has 19.5 sacks too, but as a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker his season isn’t quite as impressive as Watt’s, in my opinion.

          Either way, Watt has had an incredible year considering the position he plays.

  3. Good to see BJ and Neal stepping up, although the bears have a bad Dline. The Packs D is improving, great secondary, and getting wilson and woodson back will help make this a top notch run stuffing unit. This would have been a top 5 D had Bishop and Perry not been hurt. Perry would have improved as the season progressed.

  4. Raji playing at a high level can make this defense special. CM3 and Raji are really the only guys in the front 7 that have the talent to consistently beat the man in front of them. Pickett, Neal, Worthy, Daniels etc. are good players, but just do not have the ability to dominate the man in front of the play in and play out. I really hope Raji can keep it up. Because him playing at a high level is the difference between this being a good defense and a great defense.

  5. Interesting that Aikman singles out Raji for his performance against the Lions but PFF has him grated negatively. I wonder what the discrepancies are between the two evaluations. I’ve noticed that Raji gets talked about a lot by announcers where there hasn’t been much justification. I’m glad to see that the performance on the field is starting to match the accolades.

    1. PFF take superficial observations related to their perceptions of the match-up, typically one-on-one, and associate a scoring system to it. While I give them credit for generating an ‘objective’ measure they’re very ‘subjective’ in their understanding of scheme, personnel and game plans.

      Aikman actually plays the game and understands the scheme, personnel and match-ups.

      And before anybody tells me PFF is purchased by NFL teams, who cares? It’s just another tool that BEGINS to tell the story, it’s not the story in and of itself.

  6. While it’s great to see Raji flash this excellence, recall Bob McGinn’s qualification that the Bear’s OL is one of the worst in the league. But it does bode well that he is doing what he’s doing late in the season.

  7. Bishop and Perry would have made our defense more talented. We are going to need some luck; I am still very afraid of somebody running on us. Please Dom. Please Dom. Do not drop Clay into coverage. Let him rush: our need is pressure on the quarterback, the secondary will be fine–will Clay rushing.

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