Tuesday, February 1, 2011

True Grit : B.J. Raji Mans The Middle Of The Packers Super Bowl XLV Dreams

Nose tackle is the most difficult position to play in the National Football League. Every snap a player takes at the position encounters multiple opponents crashing down on the player from all angles. Fans typically take no notice of the nose tackle unless they incur and infraction and draw a penalty.

When the Green Bay Packers hired defensive coordinator Dom Capers before the 2009, the team switched from a 4-3 base defense to the 3-4. Since the team began playing football since 1921, this would begin just the second era that the team would attempt to play this style of defense. The Packers had used the defense from 1980 to 1993 and posted mostly mediocre results, making the playoffs just twice.

The very first draft choice the Packers made after hiring Capers was B.J. Raji out of Boston College. Raji had starred in college next to Ron Brace, who would be the 40th player chosen overall later by the New England Patriots. After selecting Raji with the ninth pick, they tabbed outside linebacker Clay Matthews III with the 26th pick of the 2009 draft.

Capers, who was named the 1996 Coach of the Year while at the helm of the Carolina Panthers, had been coaching defenders since 1975 and in the NFL since 1986. He has gone to two Super Bowls previously, but has yet to win. He fully realized the only way the 3-4 defense could truly work was to have an effective nose tackle. Raji, the best prospect at the position in several years, being there was a combination of good luck and timing.

Matthews has received most of the press since the 2009 draft. Not only because three members of his family had legendary careers in professional football before him, but Matthews has been named to the Pro Bowl in each of his two years and just missed out on being named the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year by two votes.

Raji spent most of his rookie year coming off the bench and rotating all all positions along the defensive line. Though the casual fan might say he had an underwhelming rookie year, Raji had only 14 less tackles than he did this year. In retrospect, Capers having the rookie play all over the defensive line was a smart move so that the youngster could grasp the defensive schemes better.

The nose tackle is the quarterback of the defensive line. How he performs has a huge ripple of effect on how the defense does. It is a selfless position where personal glory is seldom attained and giving up the body for the team is a play by play grind as normal in the NFL as buckling up the chinstrap of a helmet.

Raji is quickly showing he is different than most who play this position. Most nose tackles are wide and squatty. They anchor the trenches but movement is generally confined to a small area. Green Bay is allowing their athletic nose tackle do more than this, as shown by his 18-yard interception return for a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game that helped seal victory over the Chicago Bears a few weeks ago.

He is also athletic enough to play fullback when the Packers decide to run their jumbo package. At 6'2" 334, Raji delivers an impact most defenders would rather avoid. It helps clear a wider path for the ball carrier and achieve the successes sought by Green Bay. He has jokingly called himself "The Freezer" as an homage to former Bears defensive tackle William "The Refrigerator" Perry. Perry also was used as a fullback and was the heaviest man in NFL history to score a touchdown until Raji surpassed him.

The 2010 season did not see Raji named to the Pro Bowl, but he was certainly one of the best at his position. The fans chose to vote in Jay Ratliff of the Dallas Cowboys even though Raji easily out performed him with more tackles, sacks, and passes defended. In fact, Raji has superior stats to the 2009 season when Ratliff was named First Team All-Pro. 2010 Pro Bowler Kyle Williams, of the Buffalo Bills, is the only nose tackle this year than can claim he was more effective than Raji this year.

Raji's athleticism is what sets him apart from most. It is the kind of ability not seen since Curley Culp retired after the 1981 season. Culp, widely considered the greatest nose tackle ever, basically innovated the position in 1975 at 29-years old. He went to four of his six Pro Bowls as a nose tackle, yet mysteriously is still awaiting induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Most of the media is attempting to hype up Super Bowl XLV as a quarterbacks showdown between Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rogers, but defense is the real king of this game. Pittsburgh and Green Bay rank first and second respectively in points allowed this season. While the Packers rank second in points differential, Pittsburgh is right behind them in third place.

The Steelers ranked second in 2010 in yards allowed while Green Bay ranked fifth. Yet the defenses are different in effectiveness in key areas. Pittsburgh lead the league in run defense, giving up a paltry 62.8 yards per game. The Packers are less effective in that area, giving up 114.9 yards per game, but their pass defense has been better by twenty yards. The sack totals of both teams are nearly identical.

The 6.5 sacks Raji got this season, an excellent total for a nose tackle, ranked third best on the team. What makes the total even more special is the fact Green Bay lost ten players due to injury or suspension this year. While the team was really hit hard in this area, losing 15 players they planned to rely heavily on this season, losing four linebackers especially was crushing. It put more pressure on the defensive line, and Raji responded by leading all Packers defensive linemen with 39 tackles.

Pittsburgh is coming into the Super Bowl with possible a major issue that could befall them. Their center is rookie Maurkice Pouncey, a first-round draft pick this year. He was so good in 2010 that he was named to the Pro Bowl, a rare feat by an NFL rookie center since 1955 by Dick Szymanski of the Baltimore Colts, and has drawn comparisons to Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster.

Pouncey suffered a high ankle sprain in the AFC Championship victory over the New York Jets. Though the Steelers have been quiet over the severity of the injury, but it is the type of malady that takes almost two months to heal. Pouncey has been seen hobbling around on crutches lately, so it appears highly unlikely that he will even suit up for the big game even though Pouncey is adamant that he will play.

Pittsburgh may be forced to plug in Doug Legursky at center for the Super Bowl. The second-year undrafted player has started at guard in in four of his 24 career games so far, but the Steelers would prefer Pouncey snapping the ball to Roethlisberger. Legursky not only will need the constant help of guards Ramon Foster and Chris Kemoeatu, along with fullback David Johnson, but he will need to play the game of his life to give Pittsburgh a much better chance at victory.

If Raji, as now expected if Pouncey cannot play or is ineffective trying to, constantly collapses the Steelers offensive line, it will open up holes for the blitz, a scheme Capers frequently loves to employ. Packers inside linebackers Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk combined for 3.5 sacks, four interceptions, and 18 passes defended this season. They most likely will be given huge lanes to run into after the Steelers guards vacate their areas to help secure Raji.

Matthews frequently crashes off the edges to get at the opposing quarterback, something he did 13.5 times in 2010. It is possible Capers might stunt him over the middle on passing downs while having rookie nickel back Sam Shields come in from the outside.

Shields became the first rookie to ever get two interceptions, a sack, and force a fumble in a playoff game in the victory over the Bears. Packer cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams, who chipped in three sacks this season, also must be watched.

Besides the interception, Raji has gotten a sack and helped solidify the Packers run defense in their three playoff wins this season. Green Bay limited 1,000-yard running backs Matt Forte, Michael Turner, and LeSean McCoy to 155 yards on 39 attempts.

Steelers 1,000-yard running back Rashard Mendenhall, having a fabulous playoffs run himself, will need to have a great Super Bowl to help offset the loss of Pouncey. Mendenhall ran for 167 yards and three scores against the tough defenses of the Jets and Baltimore Ravens in the Steelers two playoff wins this season.

Many of the Pittsburgh players have Super Bowl experience, due to winning Super Bowl XLIII, while the Packers have none. But this Green Bay team has a resilience not seen in a long time, somehow reaching the title game despite massive influx to their roster caused by a plethora of injuries. Many of the people watching this game will know little of football, relying on televisions talking heads and their incessant babble of the quarterbacks.

Yet it will be the match up of B.J. Raji versus the Steelers center that holds the key. Green Bay frequently lines up just two defensive linemen so the defense can move around, putting the onus of the effectiveness of their young nose tackle even more. He has responded with excellence all year, but the Packers desperately need him to be this and more just one more time as "TitleTown, USA" tries to procure their 13th title and first since 1996 against a franchise that has never lost a Super Bowl game in six previous games.

It all could very well be up to a man who, as Hall of Fame defensive tackle Merlin Olsen described it while accepting his Bert Bell Award as NFL MVP in 1974, "toils in the NFL trenches".

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You got me thinking several thoughts.

- Wondering about a matchup b/w Raji and Mike Webster.

- How about a 4-3 defense with Raji and Curly Culp as tackles.

I'm rooting for the Packers.