Raji scores TD, Packers hold on to beat Bucs 35-26
Aaron Rodgers said the Green Bay Packers often run the play at the end of a Friday practice: Hand the ball to 337-pound defensive lineman B.J. Raji on the goal line and get out of the way.
Green Bay finally unleashed its big ballcarrier against Tampa Bay on Sunday, and Raji barged into the end zone for a 1-yard touchdown on the Packers' first drive of the day. The Packers went on to survive a late scare from the Buccaneers, hold on for a 35-26 victory and run their record to a perfect 10-0.
And they might have created a new part-time offensive star in the process.
''That's a D-lineman's dream,'' Raji said. ''Because you do so much that goes unnoticed, and for you to get a touchdown (is great), especially like I got it in the first drive of the game when it was kind of unexpected. I was actually sitting on my side of the bench just getting ready to go back in. And they called my number, and I'm glad I held onto the ball.''
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said the Packers had been practicing that play since training camp and joked that Raji had been stalking him on the sideline all season looking for a chance to get in the game.
''I wouldn't want to tackle him,'' McCarthy said.
Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson caught a pair of touchdowns from Rodgers on Sunday, including a game-clinching 40-yarder with 2:55 left and the game still in doubt. But Nelson said he and his teammates had more fun watching Raji score.
''I'm sure he enjoys it,'' Nelson said. ''We enjoy having him come in. He comes in and does walk-throughs with us in practice on it. We have a good time with that. Hey, when you get that opportunity, make a play.''
As a nontraditional ball carrier, Raji certainly earned more style points than Packers punter Tim Masthay.
Facing fourth-and-1 earlier in the Packers' first possession, Masthay lined up to punt. But he faced heavy pressure up the middle and had to take off running to avoid getting a punt blocked. Masthay fumbled once, picked the ball back up and ran for the first down - then fumbled the ball again, getting lucky when the ball bounced out of bounds.
''As soon as it hit the ground, I'm just praying, `Please, Lord, get that thing out of bounds,' and it did,'' Masthay said.
Afterward, Rodgers had fun at Masthay's expense.
''Tim's got to hold onto that football,'' Rodgers said. ''That was pretty funny.''
After the broken play from Masthay worked out and the touchdown from Raji added a moment of levity, it looked like just about everything was going to go the Packers' way.
Instead, they found themselves fending off the Buccaneers' second-half rally.
Rodgers threw for 299 yards and three touchdowns but wasn't happy with the way he played.
''I'm just frustrated,'' Rodgers said. ''I didn't throw the ball very well. I'm not trying to be ridiculously humble right now. I'm just frustrated. The ball wasn't coming out the way I wanted it to today.''
The Packers' defense also had trouble stopping quarterback Josh Freeman and tackling running back LeGarrette Blount, giving McCarthy plenty of mistakes to point out going into what will be a much-hyped matchup with the Lions on Thanksgiving.
''I think it was great for us,'' McCarthy said. ''Adversity is awesome. We're getting ready to play a big game on national TV on Thanksgiving, and adversity (offers) healthy situations to learn from. Especially when you overcome it.''
Blount had 107 yards rushing for Tampa Bay, including a rambling 54-yard touchdown run in the second quarter on which he broke at least six tackles.
Freeman threw for 342 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions for the Buccaneers (4-6), who have lost four straight but didn't back down against the reigning Super Bowl champions.
Freeman directed an eight-play, 91-yard scoring drive that ended with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams early in the fourth quarter. Tampa Bay tried to tie it with a 2-point conversion, but Kellen Winslow - who had a pair of big gains on the drive - dropped a catchable ball in the end zone.
Packers running back James Starks did the majority of the work in an eight-play, 85-yard scoring drive that ended with a 2-yard touchdown run by John Kuhn. Starks would later leave the game with what McCarthy described as a knee sprain.
But the Buccaneers got another chance when Rodgers threw an interception to Elbert Mack - only Rodgers' fourth INT this season - and Freeman threw a 37-yard pass to Arrelious Benn to set up first-and-goal at the 2.
Freeman then threw a touchdown to Dezmon Briscoe and the Buccaneers kicked the extra point to cut the Packers' lead to 28-26 with 4:25 left.
Tampa Bay tried an onside kick, but the Packers recovered and Rodgers found Nelson to put the game away.
Buccaneers coach Raheem Morris knew he might get second-guessed for the onside kicks - another one didn't work in the first half - but wasn't apologizing.
''I felt great about the whole game,'' Morris said. ''Our guys did a nice job competing. We came out and played the way we wanted to play. We played aggressive. We played hard and tried to get a win. (Had to) try to steal one from the champs.''