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Raji's Big Play A Nice Surprise

Posted Jan 23, 2011

CHICAGO – Players talk all the time about how thick defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ playbook is, and there was no better illustration of that than on the biggest defensive play of Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.

Trailing 14-7 with just over six minutes left, the Bears faced third-and-5 from their own 15-yard line and called timeout. To their detriment, however, the break just gave Capers more time to think about the call he wanted to make, even though he hadn’t made it all season.

It’s called “Right Cat,” which refers to the cornerback – in this case Sam Shields – blitzing from the right side. But it’s no ordinary corner blitz.

On the play, nose tackle B.J. Raji feigns a rush at the snap and drops back into coverage. It’s a little unusual to see a 337-pound behemoth backpedaling off the line to find a receiver to cover, but in this case the unexpected worked.

Raji stepped right in front of Caleb Hanie’s short pass intended for running back Matt Forte and returned it 18 yards for a touchdown, giving the Packers what turned out to be the winning points in their 21-14 victory at Soldier Field.

“He steps into the line to use a lineman’s block, and then he pops out late into the throwing lane,” Capers said. “We’re bringing the corner, so the hot read is the quick throw over there, and many times the quarterback won’t see a lineman popping out.”

Hanie, a third-string quarterback who was the only effective passer for the Bears all day, clearly never saw Raji and threw it right to him. The big guy picked it clean, and he might have started waltzing a little too early with a player chasing him – several teammates said they were a little nervous about how Raji was carrying the ball – but he got in the end zone and gave the Packers a 14-point lead with 6:04 left.

“I was acting like I was rushing and I just kept my eye on the back,” Raji said. “If he leaked out I had him, if he stayed in to (pass protect), I would continue my rush.”

With Forte going out on a route, Raji had to stay in coverage. Had Forte gone outside into the flat, Raji would have been looking for another receiver coming across the middle. But Forte came right to him, and so did the ball.

“He’s always talking about how much of an athlete he is, and I guess he showed it,” linebacker Desmond Bishop said. “I was a little skeptical, but a nice catch and a little cruise into the end zone. That’s our defense, somebody coming up big.”

Even on a play Capers hadn’t called before. That particular blitz, often referred to as a “zone blitz” because it involves a lineman dropping back into zone coverage, has been installed since training camp, and it's similar to one Capers ran way back in the early 1990s with his Pittsburgh defenses. But the players never know what Capers is going to put in any given game plan, and that’s what they love about this scheme.

They also loved seeing their big anchor in the middle getting to strut his stuff, especially the other linemen who dream of getting to make plays like that.

“I’m surprised I didn’t get a flag because I ran out on the field before he even got in the end zone, I was so excited,” defensive end Ryan Pickett said. “For one of our fellow lineman to get in the end zone, that’s big for us. We never get in there.”

Raji showed a different sort of versatility last week by playing fullback at the goal line on offense, and he got that assignment again on Sunday when quarterback Aaron Rodgers bootlegged off play-action and ran the ball in for the Packers’ first score.

But this play will be talked about a lot more and for a lot longer.

“That’s why he was the ninth pick in the draft, a 340-pound guy who has that kind of athletic ability,” Capers said. “I think he fits in with all the really good nose tackles in this league. That’s why we drafted him. He’s pressured the quarterback pretty well for us too because of his size and athletic ability. He’s got good strength, he’s smart and you can do a lot of things with him.”

Just like Capers can do a lot of things with his defense.

“To me that makes our defense more versatile, because it’s not just one or two guys,” he said. “We’ve got a number of guys who make plays and can make critical plays at key times.”

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