DALLAS – Considering the Packers made it as far is the Super Bowl, it’s pretty fair to say that whole switch to move B.J. Raji to nose tackle and Ryan Pickett to end before the season turned out fairly well.
As it turns out, the Packers probably would have done it a year earlier had it not been for several circumstances.
“What we thought about when we drafted B.J., he was really the ideal fit for nose,” said defensive line coach Mike Trgovac. “And we had a player that was very good at that in Ryan Pickett. So we didn’t want to disrupt that as much. And of course with B.J. holding out and then missing all that time with injuries.”
Last year the starting lineup was Pickett at nose with Cullen Jenkins and Johnny Jolly at the ends. With Jolly out of the picture this season due to suspension, the Packers needed to figure out how to best utilize their remaining personnel.
“It’s basically the decision we came up with, they wanted to have us both on the field at the same time,” said Pickett. “I felt that it was best if I moved to end because I felt that I could play end as well. And B.J. is more built to be inside at nose guard. So we just decided that I’d move out.”
Pickett is still technically the backup nose tackle, although he says he hasn’t played a single snap at the position all season long. And he doesn’t mind, because he’s got a new position to worry about.
The coaching staff tries not to allow Pickett to get too rusty, however, especially with a Super Bowl on the line this week.
“He takes reps at practice as the backup nose tackle,” said Trgovac. “He practiced some yesterday. We were in pads yesterday, and he did a good job.
“We’re very fortunate that we have two very good nose tackles, Pick went in there yesterday in practice and looked very good doing it. We always give him reps at nose during the week just to keep his mind fresh on that.”
One of the biggest reasons the team hasn’t need Pickett at the nose is because of the durability of Raji, which has bordered on amazing.
Due to the suspension to Jolly, season-ending injuries to Mike Neal and Justin Harrell, and other comparatively minor injuries to Pickett and Jenkins, Raji’s snaps have increased this season. And he’s continued to play at a high level despite the high amount of snaps for a person of his size.
So how does he do it?
“Just doing the little things, having a trainer stretch me out after practice,” said Raji. “Lifting heavy, real heavy once a week to kind of keep my body intact and get ready for a crucial game. Just trying to stay in the best shape I possibly can.”
Trgovac also says that the fact Raji is young helps a lot. And he’s conscious of the amount of snaps Raji is given both in practice and during games in an attempt to keep him fresh.
Apart from the base, 3-4 defense that utilizes three defensive lineman, Raji’s yeoman duties have also extended to the Packers’ nickel package that uses only two down linemen, where he plays often.
Joining him in nickel situations is Pickett, which was a stark departure from a year ago.
“I’ve been playing a lot more nickel this year than I have any other years,” said Pickett. “I think it’s going good. I think it’s been working out pretty good. Last year I don’t think I had any snaps in nickel. This year I had a lot, so I like it.”
To go from zero snaps in the nickel in 2009 to playing a much larger role in 2010 was a radical change for the Packers defensive line. According to Trgovac, the reasoning was twofold.
“Number one, a little bit of injuries had a play in that,” said Trgovac. “We lost Mike Neal who, he was a big part of our nickel plans.
“And then we end up playing so much nickel all the time, and we play it on some run downs. So you like that size and that girth that’s in there when you’re playing that nickel with Pickett and B.J. in there.”
The Packers’ run defense rankings have dipped from no. 2 against the run last season all the way to no. 18 this year. But the pass defense and overall defense are improved in 2010 – both ranked no. 5 in the NFL – in no small part due to the pass rush from Raji.
The Packers can only hope their studs along the defensive line continue to produce for one more game.
“I’ve been comfortable at the nose tackle position,” said Raji. “We’ve got a great defense so far, and hopefully we can continue it on Sunday.”