There are reasons the Packers' coaching staff likes seeing B.J. Raji work at nose tackle in the base defense this spring.
At 6-foot-2 and 337 pounds, he has the prototypical build for the position, and he has the same quick feet as veteran Ryan Pickett, who was the full-time nose tackle a year ago. In addition, because Raji played a lot of defensive end in his rookie season, the coaches like adding to both his and Pickett's versatility up front, with each learning the adjacent spot to provide more alignment options.
Then there's Raji's reason he prefers lining up straight across from the center, right on top of the ball.
"My relationship to the quarterback is a little bit closer," Raji said with a smile.
Put another way, Raji feels his one-sack rookie season did not reflect the player he can be, or expects to be. Especially not after posting eight sacks in his final season at Boston College, before the Packers made him the No. 9 overall pick in the 2009 draft.
Sacks aren't everything, especially for defensive linemen in the Packers' 3-4 scheme, where containment and consuming blockers are often greater responsibilities. But Raji likes his chances to add to his sack total if he's lined up at nose in the base defense and continues to be one of the two primary inside rushers in the nickel package, his duties thus far during OTAs.
His confidence stems from two factors. First, he's fully healthy right now, which wasn't the case for much of his rookie season.
A badly sprained ankle in the final preseason game led to him sitting out the first two regular-season contests and then slowly working his way into the defensive-line rotation. Then, when he was healthy later on and getting more comfortable at end, he was forced to learn nose tackle on the fly after Pickett went down with a hamstring injury.
Still, he did show flashes of the player he believes he can be during the Packers' strong second half of the season.
He got that first career sack against San Francisco in Week 11, buried Detroit running back Kevin Smith for a 4-yard loss on Thanksgiving (leading to a Green Bay interception on the next play), tripped up Baltimore running back Willis McGahee for a 3-yard loss on Monday Night Football the following game, and was in the backfield again to stop Seattle running back Julius Jones for a 4-yard loss the day the Packers clinched their playoff berth.
"It was tough to start with such a slow start with the ankle and the hold on everything," Raji said. "But that's behind me and hopefully I can stay healthy."
The other reason for his optimism is simply being a year removed from being both a rookie and a newbie in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' scheme.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy noted that Raji has a better understanding of the defense this season, and with that comes expectations for greater production. Raji couldn't agree more.
"I know the type of player I'm capable of being, with the extra year and extra technique and going at this defense a second time," he said. "Obviously each day we're installing new things, but I have a little familiarity with it, so I think it's going to be good this season."
The Packers certainly hope so. In a perfect world, the defense will be able to maintain its standing as the No. 1 defense in the league against the run while also generating more pressure from the down linemen.
For that to happen, Raji will need to be an impact player on the interior, both over the ball in base and as an inside rusher in the nickel. He wants to be as close to the quarterback, at all times, as possible.
"We understand a lot of things we do schematically, it doesn't always put us in the best pass-rush situation," Raji said of the linemen. "But when our number is called, we want to be able to deliver."