A Rejuvenated Raji at Nose Tackle is the Best Raji

Robert Olson evaluates B.J. Raji’s impact at nose tackle.

B.J. Raji’s career has been up and down. When he exclusively played nose tackle (NT) in 2010, his best season, he was disruptive and impactful on numerous occasions. Starting in 2011, the coaching staff wanted to move Raji around so that he could play NT and defensive end (DE). This decision seemed odd. From 2011-2013, he really never played at the same level that he did in 2010. Many people said that his mediocre play from 2011-2013 (especially in 2013) was due to a lack of motivation. There may be truth to that, but my main argument was that he was more comfortable at NT and that he needed to exclusively play NT again (his natural position). In 2013, which was Raji’s worst season, he exclusively played DE. When the coaching staff finally decided to put him back at NT full-time in the 2014 preseason, Raji looked good prior to suffering a season-ending injury. Now, in 2015, through the first two weeks, he is starting to look like the 2010 Raji again at NT.

On Sunday night against the Seahawks, the Packers’ defensive line played at a high level. This article will break down three plays of Raji at NT from the Seahawks-Packers game.

On this first play, the Packers used their 2-4-5 nickel, and Raji was at the 1-technique spot (between the center and left guard). The Seahawks ran “Outside Zone” to the weak side. Watch Raji. At the snap, he initiated the contact with the center, and immediately had the advantage due to the location of his hand placement. The center did not have much of a chance at this point. Raji not only physically dominated the center, but he also made the tackle.

On this second play, the Packers employed their 3-4 base defense. Raji was playing the 1-technique NT position again. Seattle ran Outside Zone again, this time to the strong side. Just like the first play, Raji initiated the contact with the center. Raji’s technique and strength allowed him to knock the center back about two yards, which accomplished two things. First, it eliminated a cutback lane for Marshawn Lynch. Secondly, it helped string the play out. With the help of Mike Neal, who did a great job of setting the edge on this play, Raji wrecked another Outside Zone run.

The third and final play of this article demonstrates what Raji can do as a pass rusher. Here, the Packers used the Nickel “Bear” front, and Raji was lined up as the 0-technique (directly over the center). Since the “Bear” front creates one-on-one matchups up front, the center had to block Raji by himself on this play-action pass. As a result, Raji was able to physically beat the center with a bull rush. Even though Raji did not sack Wilson, he got him off his spot and forced him to move, which caused Wilson to run out of bounds for a loss of one yard. A play like this would especially affect a less mobile quarterback like Peyton Manning, who the Packers face in week 8.

Only two weeks have passed, and there is a long journey ahead, so while Raji has deserved praise, he needs to keep proving me right. If he can continue to dominate centers, create penetration, and provide an occasional pass rush from the NT position, the entire defense will benefit.

Thanks for reading, Packers fans. Follow me on Twitter at @RobertOlson92 for daily analysis on the Packers.

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Comments (46)

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Tundraboy's picture

September 24, 2015 at 01:28 pm

Sure would be nice. Here's hoping his season is full of great play.

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JerseyAl's picture

September 25, 2015 at 07:26 am

The biggest thing for Raji is not what position he plays (although NT is certainly the best fit), it's about how how motivated and dedicated he is and how long he can sustain that motivation. Going back to college, former coaches said he was the guy who most needed continual kick in the arse to get him to work hard. He had the will as a rookie and then it went away. You would have thought when he was in the final year of his contract he would have set the world on fire, yet he disappeared. After more disappointments and no one other than the Packers willing to take a chance on him, he may have finally woken up and realized what he has to do to stay in this league. When he wants to be, he can be very good. let's hope it lasts this time. (but even if it does I would be scared s***less giving him a multi-year deal in the future.)

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

September 25, 2015 at 08:30 am

Amen, Jersey Al.

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DrealynWilliams's picture

September 25, 2015 at 10:20 am

Bingo!

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Blank Space's picture

September 24, 2015 at 01:37 pm

I second that!

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Evan's picture

September 24, 2015 at 01:52 pm

Whole lotta people on here might need to eat some crow about Raji and playing NT. It's still early, but it really could really be as simple as him playing out of position the last few seasons.

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DrealynWilliams's picture

September 24, 2015 at 02:48 pm

They sure do. But I think it's more than something so simple as not playing NT. Pennel is out of position and he's still making awesome (and sometimes thankless) plays.

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Evan's picture

September 24, 2015 at 03:00 pm

I think if Pennel is making plays at DE, then he's not necessarily "out of position." Pennel is probably just more versatile than Raji.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

September 25, 2015 at 08:28 am

Your Pennel comment is excellent. Truth is though that Raji played DE pretty well in 2011 IIRC, Raji had a +12.7 rating that year (my source is Jersey Al from an article in 2011, but I couldn't find that article, so I am a little concerned about my source).

Now, I have suggested that Raji has immense talent (behind only CM3 & Rodgers - Peppers in his heyday too), and likely would play NT well this year. I haven't changed my mind about my periodic rant: Never, ever, give Raji a lot of guaranteed money.

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DrealynWilliams's picture

September 24, 2015 at 05:56 pm

I don't think Pennel is more versatile than Raji.

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Evan's picture

September 24, 2015 at 06:36 pm

But if Pennel can have success at both DE and NT and Raji appears to only play well at NT...what would one call that? ;)

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DrealynWilliams's picture

September 24, 2015 at 06:44 pm

Luck? Lol. I don't know.

It's always something deeper to why X-player couldn't do this when Y-Player could.

By the way, this is not taking anything away Pennel. I'm on that bandwagon. I think he has Pro-Bowl potential.

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Dan Stodola's picture

September 24, 2015 at 07:34 pm

Pennel is more suited to play DE than Raji. Most good 34 DE are taller and longer. Being 6'4 to Raji's 6'2 and having longer arms helps Pennel at DE, those are traits that most 34 teams try to find in DE. Look at Pitts, Balt, NYJ. Their DE at all 6'4 and that helps them. Raji was a terrible fit at DE. Pennel is better fit.

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croatpackfan's picture

September 25, 2015 at 04:43 am

I say you have another example to support your claims. Excellent player on DE/DT position is Mike Daniels, who is 6.0, what helps him a lot at that position!

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RCPackerFan's picture

September 25, 2015 at 07:20 am

I was just going to say the same thing. From a body type, DE's in the 34 are typically taller and have longer arms to match up better against OT's who typically have longer arms. NT's are typically shorter to maintain leverage against G/C.

Pennel fits the DE position better because he is taller and longer and has more reach. Raji is a quite a bit shorter and less arm length.

There are exceptions to the rule. Daniels is the exception to the rule. He can play anywhere on the DL and be effective. Daniels is a former wrestler and has learned to use his size to his advantage. But typically in the 34 DE's are much longer.

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HankScorpio's picture

September 24, 2015 at 04:12 pm

I'm one. And I'm happy to do so. He's already given more than I thought he would give in an entire season. I was wrong and I'm thrilled to eat crow on it. Tastes like victory.

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RCPackerFan's picture

September 25, 2015 at 06:57 am

Your right. I know you, Dan, and Me have been saying that for a while that Raji's best position is NT and he has been out of position.

His body type is made for NT. He was drafted to be NT. So let him play there.

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Packmaniac's picture

September 26, 2015 at 01:29 pm

Completely agree. I think he's more comfortable with a guy at each shoulder. That gap assignment and the close confines of the NT position suit him well, and he knows it.

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hobbes's picture

September 24, 2015 at 02:51 pm

Raji played a great game, but holy crap is that center useless.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

September 24, 2015 at 04:32 pm

The Seattle center, Nowak, got a positive grade from PFF against St. Louis the week before, though I think it was only +0.2.

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hobbes's picture

September 24, 2015 at 07:01 pm

Nowak graded as a -.8 against St. Louis and -3.8 against the Packers.

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Dan Stodola's picture

September 24, 2015 at 08:57 pm

In other words Raji made him look worse than Brockers and the All World Aaron Donald. I can live w/ that! :)

Raji has always dominated playing right over Centers.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

September 25, 2015 at 08:34 am

Ah, I plead memory fail. (Perhaps your -0.8 was his overall grade and he had a +0.2 in run or pass pro or it got adjusted later, but my memory doesn't matter - as Dan S notes below, Raji made Nowak play worse the St. Louis did.)

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

September 26, 2015 at 11:14 am

I couldn't find the PFF grade for Nowak from the Rams game (I assume that Mr. Hobbes is correct - just I might have seen the +0.2 before it was adjusted. Here's a recap of grades from Field Gulls for the St. Louis game:
"Russell Okung was ranked 58th among tackles, while Garry Gilliam was 64th, which is second-to-last. Justin Britt was 60th for guards, while J.R. Sweezy was 65th, also second-to-last. Drew Nowak was ... 13th! for centers. Though if you ordered it by run blocking grade, he was 27th."

13th out of 32 isn't bad. My point was that Nowak played reasonably well against the ferocious St. Louis D-line, and Raji made him look really bad.

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marpag1's picture

September 24, 2015 at 04:42 pm

Yup, and you're probably being overly kind. If there is something worse than useless, that might be a more apt description. The rest of Seattle the O-line ain't great, either.

I said the same thing right after the game. People seemed to think that I was spitting in the face of Raji's greatness. Oh well...

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hobbes's picture

September 24, 2015 at 07:04 pm

I had some other words in mind but I'll decided to keep it more PC. I agree with your assessment of Raji; yes he's played well, but it sure helps when he's going up centers who have no business being on the field. I do find it kind of ironic that they traded their pro bowl center for a pro bowl tight end and the proceed to ignore him.

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croatpackfan's picture

September 25, 2015 at 04:51 am

I already said that I think Saints knew very well what they are doing when they traded Graham. I think Graham is either injured (small cronic injury that prevent him to show his full potential) or in his declilne... I remeber Graham from earlier seasons (I loved how he played position!). No way that Sean will keep running along him 2 years ago... He was so much faster... I think this trade was mistake made by Seattle...

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Duke Divine's picture

September 24, 2015 at 03:37 pm

Unblockable! He is certainly rejuvenated! The center for the rainy city bitch chickens is certainly not probowl material but Raji blew it up all day vs the Bears too. All Forte's yards came from bouncing it out away from Raji while the DBs and LBs took some horrid angles. Raji is going to be a beast all year if healthy!

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Oppy's picture

September 24, 2015 at 04:46 pm

I hope Raji proves me wrong.

I've always said Raji is talented- he's a great penetrating, disruptive player- but he's been miscast and he's definitely not a natural NT, regardless of his body type. I've always said he'd make an excellent 3-tech DT in a 4-3, because that puts him in a gap and would allow him to use his greatest assest (his short area burst and mobility for a man of his size) to split the linemen and wreck havoc in the backfield.

However, a player who's "Natural position" is NT should be able to play 0 tech, two gap, and hold the point without giving an inch to the double team. It's a thankless job. It's also something that I've watched Raji fail to do when tasked multiple times. All these highlights are Raji penetrating or pursuing vs. 1 on 1 protection. I'm very glad he's doing it. It's good for the Packers. I still think I need to see him play true nose and do the dirty work for a few games before I'm ready to agree he has the heart, demeanor, and ability to say his 'natural position' is NT.

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jeremyjjbrown's picture

September 24, 2015 at 05:09 pm

The DE's in the Packers defense play quite a bit of 3 technique.

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marpag1's picture

September 24, 2015 at 05:09 pm

I agree, Oppy, and I think it could also be said of Daniels that he is more effective with single gap responsibilities than he is taking guys head-on. I think this was a big part of the rationale for signing Peppers. The presence of a prototypical "elephant end" like Peppers will allow D-linemen to do a lot more single gapping than is normal for a standard 3-4 defense.

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Dan Stodola's picture

September 25, 2015 at 09:30 am

There are different types of NT for different schemes. One gap 34 scheme Raji is a great fit. 2 gap 34 scheme Pickett is a better fit. Dallas play w/ Ratliff at NT, he was barely 300 lbs, but in the Dallas one gap scheme he was a perfect fit. However, if you forced him to play a 2 gap scheme he would not have been a Pro Bowl NT or even a good NT.

You can't pigeon hole them all as the same position. Its scheme dependent. I hated that Raji got moved from NT to DE, and knew he wasn't good at DE. But Pickett was better at taking on 2 blockers, so to some degree it made sense since the Packers were a 2 gap scheme at the time. Raji was also a quicker player so maybe they thought Raji could play DE better than Pickett at the time in that scheme, IDK.

Either way, Raji is an excellent one gap NT. I think Capers made allowances early in Raji's career to keep him at NT, even tho he wanted a 2 gap NT, which isn't Raji's forte. Raji excels playing 0 tech, head to head w/ the Center, which Capers allowed him to do early, but that wasn't what Capers wanted at the time and Pickett was a 2 gap NT. Therefore, the change of Raji to DE.

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Oppy's picture

September 25, 2015 at 01:57 pm

If Raji isn't great at maintaining 2 gap discipline, I don't know how you figure he excels at playing 0 tech.

You might want to splice together a Raji's greatest hits clip featuring him lined up on the zero. Your reel will be about 10 plays long.

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Lphill's picture

September 24, 2015 at 07:00 pm

well is anyone else wondering what took so long to move Raji back? I am looking forward to Raji Pennel and Guion in together against the run, but again what took so long to make the move?

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Evan's picture

September 24, 2015 at 07:08 pm

I think Pickett is why. Maybe they viewed him as the better NT so Raji got bumped outside.

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Dan Stodola's picture

September 24, 2015 at 09:04 pm

Pickett was a very good NT in the old 2 gap scheme they played. But Raji has always excelled playing straight up over Centers. And now in a one gap scheme its an even better fit for Raji. Look for him to get a nice 3 or 4 yr contract in the offseason to stay in GB.

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Oppy's picture

September 25, 2015 at 04:12 am

When you play "right over" or "Straight up" vs. a center, you DO generally have a two gap assignment- because you are playing nose-to-nose with the center, you are supposed to be responsible for BOTH "A" gaps- either side of the center. When Raji aligns the way he does (typically at an angle to one shoulder or the other of the center), that is not considered playing 'right over' or 'straight up' on a center. He's playing 1 tech or, at best, shading the center.

Pickett was an great, true, NT. He could play true 0 tech, hold two linemen up at the LOS without budging, and get off that double team to stuff the RB in either gap in a moment's notice. Dom Capers started shying away from utilizing a traditional NT role because Pickett was declining with age and Raji isn't very good at it. Don't get it twisted.

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Dan Stodola's picture

September 25, 2015 at 09:35 am

0 tech which is straight over the Center isn't a natural 2 gap position. The offense generally only has the Center to block the NT. 0 tech is more of a one gap. If the player dominates the Center, the offense might add an OG to make sure the NT is block and not disrupting. A shade NT, which Pickett played better is a 2 gap, but the NT isn't head to head, he's shaded to one side of the Center.

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Nicholas's picture

September 25, 2015 at 12:45 pm

Im sorry that you have no knowledge of defensive line techniques. Ill help you out a little. 0 tech plays straight up over a center and is responsible for both A gaps. The A gaps are the spaces between the center and guards. The 1 tech lines up on the inside shoulder of a guard. His responsibility is the single A gap he is lined up in. I hope this prevents you from making foolish comments in the future.

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Nicholas's picture

September 25, 2015 at 12:51 pm

The traditional 0 tech is absolutely a 2 gap responsibility. However, a non-traditional 0 tech assignment is asking the NT to shoot a single A gap and filling the other A gap with a linebacker.

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Dan Stodola's picture

September 25, 2015 at 08:50 pm

A traditional 0 tech isn't going to be drawing 2 OL. A traditional 0 tech the offense will almost always try to block w/ just the Center. If the Offense adds an OG, its a win for the D since it opens another defender. The offset (shaded NT) is the one that is responsible for taking on 2 blockers no matter what.

Packers played Raji in 0 tech, but Pickett in 1 tech (shade NT). Why would they use the better 2 gap NT in 1 tech NT to only be responsible for one gap and the better 0 tech and force him to take double teams? Makes no sense.

Maybe its better to say the 0 tech is only being blocked by one OL, whereas the 1 tech is being blocked by 2 DL. Either way Raji excels playing directly over the Center, not so much shaded.

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Oppy's picture

September 26, 2015 at 12:34 pm

Dan, you are completely wrong on this. The tradition 0 tech NT in a 3-4 is supposed to be the large, immovable beast that demands 2 OL to take him on to keep him out of the play. The NT is supposed to be able to hold his ground, and even more, be able to disengage and play both the A gaps. It's a tall order, it's demanding, and It's the basis for freeing up a one-on-one between the OT and the DE on one side of the formation or the other, which gives the LB's (the playmakers in a 3-4 D) the advantage of a free lane to the QB or a one-on-one with a RB or TE (which they are expected to win).

You don't play two gap from lining up in between two offensive linemen, you are literally pinning yourself between blockers, and isolating the defender into a single gap.

Everything you are saying is backwards in this particular discussion.

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Archie's picture

September 25, 2015 at 08:07 am

Good comment.

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adambrymer's picture

September 25, 2015 at 02:15 pm

Here to eat crow. I trashed Raji in the comments section a few weeks ago, saying there was no hope of him ever regaining 2010 form.

I was wrong and I'm glad for it. Hope the big man can keep it up. These are the type of individual contributions GB needs to stay in the "W" column despite some of the key injuries we've suffered.

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Bryce Hansen's picture

September 25, 2015 at 07:20 pm

Think of all the years of great play they could've had outta him if they'd just left him at the nose.

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murph27's picture

September 25, 2015 at 10:38 pm

Raji looked great and showed a higher motor than we've seen in a long time, maybe ever. I am cautiously optimistic. The cautious part is that he was playing against Drew Nowak, who is a great local story but he is certainly not Max Unger or one of the Pouncey boys.

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