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Most Important Packers of 2012 -- #4: B.J. Raji, DT

Jul 21, 2012 -- 8:20pm
 
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GREEN BAY – When B.J. Raji was at his dominating best – and no, we’re not talking about that offensive backfield cameo as “The Freezer” – during the 2010 season, the Green Bay Packers’ defense was similarly impressive.

And when Raji had a less impactful season – last year – the defense tanked, landing at the bottom of the 32-team NFL

While there might not have been a direct cause-and-effect between those two events, this much is certain: The Packers need Raji to return to form and tilt the field in their favor.

“He needs to take that next step. And I think he will,” Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said of Raji, who begins his fourth NFL season when the Packers kick off training camp on Thursday. “It’s kind of a progression that guys go through in taking steps to being an elite player in this league.

“I think the study habits and all the things that go along with it – he needs to improve in every area of that deal. He needs to take his game to a fourth-year pro level. That’s what we’re working hard with him and the things we talked to him about that he just needs to take it to the next level. B.J.’s a good player. The natural progression that guys go through in pro football, where you’re at this stage, you’re at this stage, you’re at that stage. We’ll see.”

Last season, Raji flip-flopped between 3-technique tackle and nose tackle with veteran Ryan Pickett, but he’s probably better suited to play what is considered a defensive end position in the 3-4. He can be incredibly explosive, and he probably would post better numbers if he was given more opportunities to “jet” rush the passer instead of maintaining gap responsibilities at the line of scrimmage.

It might also help Raji if he didn’t play so many snaps. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Raji played 937 snaps last season, roughly 80 percent of the team’s defensive snaps and far and away the most of any defensive lineman. (Pickett played 507; Jarius Wynn played 478; C.J. Wilson played 416; Howard Green played 235 and Mike Neal played 170.) The addition of second-round pick Jerel Worthy, who figures to be Raji’s running-mate in the nickel defense, should help in that department.

"B.J. probably played more than we’d hoped the last couple years. But that was more out of necessity," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "And big guys like that, if you’re playing them every play, they’re not going to be as effective for a higher percentage of those plays."

Despite his step  back, Raji was recognized with his first Pro Bowl selection, a classic example of a player being voted in a year after earning the honor. ProFootballFocus.com listed him among the most “undeserving” Pro Bowlers, writing: “Gone are those dominant displays and now you rarely notice that he’s on the field. That is what has become of Raji so his selection, more than any other, discredits the Pro Bowl.”

While that might’ve been a bit harsh, there’s no denying that the Packers need the Raji of 2010 to reemerge.

“We’ve got to get better. I’ve got to get better myself to help our defense. Got to get better as a defensive line,” Raji said. “Even when you’re double-teamed, we’ve got a find way to get off those blocks. We’ve got to get better as a unit and that’s where we have to start.”

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