GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Tackling drills aside, there is one significant change the Green Bay Packers made this offseason to help their pass rush -- and by extension, their entire pass defense. Anchoring B.J. Raji at nose tackle put what should be their top frontline playmaker in the best position to wreak maximum havoc.
And for the Packers to take a step here, Raji will have to do just that. From the outside, no hurdles are evident. Unlike his rookie season, Raji reported to training camp on time. He remains injury-free, unencumbered by the ankle sprain that hobbled him for the first half of the 2009 season. He's not being asked to split time at multiple positions, having ceded the end position to Ryan Pickett, and all systems should be go for a breakout year.
You might consider that an unfair expectation for a second-year nose tackle in a 3-4 defense, but I'm sorry. Raji was the No. 9 overall pick in the 2009 draft, and a defensive lineman selected in that spot shouldn't just be a guy who holds his ground on the line of scrimmage. You can find players like that much later in the draft. Raji needs to push centers backwards. He needs to wrap up running backs behind the line of scrimmage.
And most importantly, he needs to make a beeline for the quarterback. That's what you're paying for when you draft a defensive lineman No. 9 overall.
When I caught up with Raji in the Packers' locker room, he seemed to have the same idea.
"I feel that nose tackle gives me the best opportunity to make plays," he said, "and take advantage of my size and strength over most centers. ... It's been huge to just be working there, as far as trying to get technique down and get comfortable. The fact that I'm not being moved here and there, and the fact that I can take the reps at one position primarily, I think that's going to help me."
By now you're probably saying that linebackers are the primary playmakers in a 3-4 defense. While that has traditionally been the case, I don't think anyone should accept it for Raji. The Packers drafted him after their conversion and certainly had big plans for him in the new scheme.
After watching a day of Packers practices, a couple ideas seem clear. First, Raji said the Packers are emphasizing pass rush among defensive linemen even though, "in this scheme, the defensive line's responsibilities are not just to pass rush." Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac is working on making the pass rush "second nature" despite their status as 3-4 linemen, Raji said.
Second, defensive coordinator Dom Capers reminded us how often the Packers use their sub packages. There will be times when Raji plays as a defensive tackle in a four-lineman scheme, or even a two-lineman set with outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage. Both instances will give him further opportunities to get into the backfield.
"I think he can play end, but I think he can be an excellent nose tackle for us," Capers said. "He'll do a lot of different things."
So far, so good as the Packers conclude their first week in training camp. I'll be especially interested to see how he fares in Saturday's Family Night scrimmage.
"I think you're seeing a different guy now," Capers said. "You're seeing a healthy guy. He's in his natural position. We thought he would be more natural inside, and ... I think he's done well."
You read plenty of quotes like that one in training camp stories. Often they're based simply on the optimism of summer. In this case, however, the Packers aren't just hoping it is true. It must be.