After missing the 2014 season with a biceps injury, B.J. Raji has gained speed while retaining his brawn.
Ben Margot/Associated Press
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji got quicker to stay stronger at the line of scrimmage. He has returned to his disruptive ways after missing the 2014 season with a biceps injury.
Raji just might be better than ever back at nose tackle as part of the first line of a defense that has been strong against the run over the last few weeks.
"B.J. is very smart. He really steadies the game and I think he’s probably in as good a shape as he’s been in," veteran defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
The brawn is still there on Raji’s broad 6-foot-2 frame, listed at 335 pounds. Raji added yoga to his conditioning routine the last couple years with the hope of improving mobility.
Add Raji to a unit that also includes high-energy end Mike Daniels and fellow run-stuffer Letroy Guion, and it’s no wonder that the Packers have held starting backs to an average of about 36 yards on 11 carries over the last three games.
"I think we’re trending in the right direction," Capers said.
It’s quite the contrast from this time last year.
The Packers had trouble against the run until giving pass-rushing linebacker Clay Matthews more snaps at inside linebacker. The hope was that Matthews’ athleticism would help slow down running backs.
The move worked. Now when he is inside, Matthews gets the added benefit of having Daniels and long-time teammate Raji in front of him occupying offensive lineman. That often leaves Matthews clean of a blocker and able to get to the ball carrier.
"They’ve been fantastic. Obviously they do a great job of, as I said, keeping guys off me, but even more importantly . . . when a play gets rolling, they make sure they stay in their gaps," Matthews said.
Stopping the run on early downs allows the Packers to go after quarterbacks during third-and-long situations. Green Bay has 17 sacks, tied for second in the league with Sunday’s opponent, the St. Louis Rams.
"Oh, he definitely helps them," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said about Raji. "They’re also really good at penetrating and tackles for losses in the run game. Which, second-and-12 and second-and-13 are hard to overcome there."
The Packers are tripping up backs even without two of their best run defenders. Inside linebacker Sam Barrington was lost for the year in the season opener with a right foot injury. Safety Morgan Burnett has missed three of four games with a calf injury.
But with Raji back, the Packers have more experience up the middle on early downs. Raji and Matthews were each drafted in the first round by Green Bay in 2009 and won the Super Bowl together five seasons ago.
"I can remember having a conversation with them after we drafted them about ‘You guys have to be the cornerstone here that we build on from a defensive standpoint,’" Capers said.
Notes: RT Bryan Bulaga (left knee) was listed as questionable for the St. Louis game, though his status could change after Saturday’s practice. The Packers were off Friday, but coach Mike McCarthy was optimistic by the way Bulaga looked during his first two limited practices this week. Bulaga hasn’t played since the season opener. "I mean, for almost being three weeks out, I’m happy with it, but we’ll see how it feels tomorrow," Bulaga said. . . . WRs Randall Cobb (right shoulder) and James Jones (hamstring) were listed as probable, as was Matthews (quad). . . . Burnett and WR Davante Adams have not practiced yet this week. They were listed as questionable.