The defensive line is traditionally a position that sees a lot of rotation in the professional football, an attempt to keep behemoth 300-plus pound players fresh.
Unfortunately for the Packers, it was also a position that lacked depth and impact players a year ago. With no where else or no one else to turn to, an exhausted B.J. Raji was forced to stay on the field longer and more frequently than common sense said he should.
As the Packers get themselves prepared for the upcoming 2012 NFL season, Raji met with reporters last week during organized team activities to reflect upon last season’s disappointing defensive performance and to look forward to what he hopes is a an improved effort this year.
“Obviously last year was a different year for us just because we weren’t seeming to get off the field as much, so it had a different affect on me,” said Raji. “But hopefully we’ll get back to where we want to be, so that’ll be different.”
Before the 2011 season began, fellow defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins left for the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency, and along with him went the Packers pass rush.
In a 2010 regular season that ended in a Super Bowl title, the Packers accumulated 47 sacks, the second most in the NFL behind only the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 48.
Then in 2011, the pass rush fell off the map, generating only 29 sacks, which ranked a lowly 27th in the NFL. The number 29 looks even worse considering no defense had more pass attempts against it (637) than the Packers last season.
There’s something to be said about the Packers offense that was so prolific, so high-scoring that opponents had no choice but to chuck the ball all over the field in an attempt to play catch-up. Regardless, the Packers defense couldn’t stop them.
Without the threat of pressure, quarterbacks stood tall in the pocket against the Packers, finding their intended targets.
So the front office set about rectifying that situation this season. In the first round of the NFL Draft the Packers selected USC’s Nick Perry to play opposite Clay Matthews at outside linebacker and then traded up to grab Michigan State’s Jerel Worthy in the second round to add to the talent along the defensive line.
That was in addition to signing Anthony Hargrove, Phillip Merling and Daniel Muir as free agents and drafting Mike Daniels of Iowa in the fourth round, all defensive linemen. Obviously general manager Ted Thompson was serious about improving the performance from that unit and the pass rush as a whole.
It didn’t take long for the Packers to insert Worthy into the lineup next to Raji during practice this offseason on the defense’s first-string nickel package.
Whether the addition of Worthy and company is going to be able to spell Raji isn’t up for him to decide, however. That’s something he’ll let the coaches work out.
“I can’t concern myself with that,” said Raji. “Obviously anytime you’re add a player of Jerel’s caliber, I’m definitely going to get excited about that, because we could use the help up front. Any team could, to add that type of talent to the front.
“But ultimately, I won’t have control over how many snaps I’m playing, so I’m not going to worry about that.”
It’s extremely early in Worthy’s career to assume he’s going to cure the Packers’ pass rush woes. Before he gets meaningful game action, he has to prove to the coaches that he deserves to be on the field to begin with.
And as important as improving the Packers pass rush may be, it’s still only part of the job description of Worthy, Raji and the rest of the defensive line. Stopping the run is part of the game too, and it will factor into playing time decisions.
All the players can do at this point, still a few months away from the season, is work on getting better.
To be able to do that, with the help of his teammates like quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Raji says he’s thrilled just to practice and work on his craft.
“Aaron’s always trying to get you to jump offsides,” said Raji, “so concentration has to be at an all-time high with Aaron. But other than that, just being excited, back on the field and having a chance to get better.”