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Healthy Raji Making Contribution

Rookie nose tackle B.J. Raji was expected to provide depth on the Packers’ veteran defensive line this season, and after a preseason injury prevented him from making the impact he hoped for early on, he has made his presence felt of late as part of the team’s defensive resurgence. - More Dec. 1: Packers Sign TE Crabtree To Practice Squad

Rookie nose tackle B.J. Raji was expected to provide depth on the Packers' veteran defensive line this season, and after a preseason injury prevented him from making the impact he hoped for early on, he has made his presence felt of late as part of the team's defensive resurgence.

Raji, who was drafted with the No. 9 overall pick by Green Bay this spring out of Boston College, sustained an ankle injury in the first half of the team's preseason finale at Tennessee. It forced him to miss the first two regular-season games, and limited him for several weeks after.

But after averaging just over 16 snaps per contest in his first five games, Raji has seen his playing time, and impact, make a jump over the past four weeks, seeing time at both end spots and as a down lineman in the Packers' sub packages.

"I feel like I'm back to the player the Packers drafted me at," Raji said. "They drafted me at that position knowing that I could do certain things. I just feel like I am that guy at this point and hopefully moving forward I'll be even better."

Raji is coming off of a season-high 30-snap game at Detroit on Thanksgiving, one that saw him record three tackles, including a tackle for loss. In the second quarter, he broke through the middle of the line to put a huge hit on Lions running back Kevin Smith for a 4-yard loss.

Raji was part of a defensive front that helped limit Smith to just 43 yards on 18 carries (2.4 avg.), with a long run of just 6 yards. Raji also posted the first pass defensed of his career, batting down a Matthew Stafford pass intended for tight end Casey FitzSimmons in the second quarter.

That performance came less than a week after he posted his first career sack as he brought down 49ers quarterback Alex Smith for a 1-yard loss early in the second quarter of the Packers' 30-24 win over San Francisco.

"Every game he's going to continue to get better and better," defensive end Cullen Jenkins said. "This league has a lot to do with experience, and you can see him out there, it seems like he's making more and more plays every week. As long as he keeps doing what he's doing, he's going to be a great player."

Raji said his play of late isn't necessarily him having added confidence in his abilities, but more about confidence in the health of his ankle.

"I would say that I trust in the injury that was bothering me for so long; that's what it is," Raji said. "I'm not so much worried about landing or twisting or rolling on it. I'm just playing ball now and reacting to what I see depending on what defense we are in. That's probably the best part about that."

The Detroit game was the third time in the last four contests that Raji has taken 25-plus snaps after eclipsing that number just once in the first five games as he worked his way back from the ankle injury.

Raji was seeing time primarily at left end during the preseason as well as a down lineman when the team went to nickel. But after he sustained the injury, Jenkins and left end Johnny Jolly were forced to take on a heavy workload early in the season.

While the tandem posted some impressive numbers in the first three games, combining for 28 tackles, two sacks and an interception, the defense had some struggles against the run. Green Bay allowed 386 rushing yards, an average of 128.7 per game, in the first three contests, highlighted by 100-yard performances by Cincinnati's Cedric Benson in Week 2 and St. Louis' Steven Jackson in Week 3.

In those first three games, Jenkins averaged over 58 snaps per game while Jolly averaged over 57. As Raji has settled into the defensive-line rotation, Jenkins has seen that number dip by nearly 17 snaps a game and Jolly has seen a decrease of more than 11 snaps per contest.

{sportsad300}"It helps out," Jenkins said. "Kind of reminds me more of the rotation we used to have a couple of years ago, where you're not on the field for too many reps in a game. Obviously, being a competitor, you want to play. Everybody on the defense is like that.

"But we have all the confidence in the world in whoever is out there, so it's a matter of when you're tired, being smart enough to know that you can come out and take a break, and the next guy is going to go in there and play just as good."

The snaps off to keep them fresh has shown up on the stat sheet as well. Since Jackson's 100-yard game in Week 3, Green Bay's defense has allowed 594 rushing yards in eight games (74.3 per game), which is tied with Pittsburgh for fewest allowed over that span.

That surge has helped the Packers take over the No. 1 overall defense ranking in the NFL entering Week 13, which includes the fourth-ranked run defense at just 89.3 yards per game.

Continuing their strong play against the run will be critical as the Packers close the season with four of five games potentially in cold weather, with two games at Lambeau Field and back-to-back trips to Chicago and Pittsburgh.

"It's a prideful stat," Raji said. "I was very excited to be telling people back home. We work very hard around here and it's nice to have that No. 1 sitting next to your team and the defense you are playing for.

"It's a work in progress. You want to play your best games every week, but obviously that is not going to happen all of the time. I'm happy that (we) as a defense, including myself, are playing our best ball at the right time of the year."

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