Is Raji Being Used Correctly?

In the last few months, I’ve seen occasional chatter related to this subject, most notably appearing as “insiders – rumblings” type things where a writer cites an unnamed source such as a scout that Raji is being used wrong by the Packers. Is this true? Thus far we’ve seen Raji used as both backup LDE, backup NT, and the extra big man in short yardage/goal line defense. His time at backup LDE has been the full responsibilities of the backup LDE, including play in sub package (pass) defense where the NT comes off the field. Most of his work has been confined to the LDE role and nickel work that goes with it.

What is Raji?

I think that the incorrect evaluation of Raji goes back to at least the senior bowl by a majority of armchair scouts and talking heads. The fact is that Raji was not a NT. He had the ht-wt combo that people latched onto that said NT, but that was not his use in college (Ron Brace had that role), and really was not the way he played. He has all the physical measurements that you would look for out of an elite NT in the NFL, but he is a project there that is a few years away from full time point play.

Raji had lots of highlight reel plays in college, and was unblockable in 1 on 1’s at the senior bowl. Almost every eye popping thing he did was related to the pass. Being a good run stuffer doesn’t get a guy drafted in the top 10. Being a good pass rusher does. And Raji can rush the passer, while being a true A gap tackle, like no other. Most DT’s that can rush the passer are under tackles; 1 on 1 tackles that line up over the guard and shoot the B gap or counter through an A gap. They are not built to control 2 gaps while a run double is applied, often they struggle to control 2 gaps even in a 1 on 1 situation.

What Kind of Defense Does Green Bay Play?

If you have watched the team closely this year you would know that formation has been a very fluid thing. This is not like a rigid 4-3 where the same 4 guys line up on the line all game with a little interior rotation. The Packers have played a 1-5-5, 2-5-4, 2-4-5, 3-3-5, 3-4-4, 3-5-3, 4-4-3, 5-2-3 at various points thus far this season, but the overall bulk of plays have fallen into a 2-4-5 and related variants (1-5-5, 3-3-5, 2-5-4) and a 3-4-4 and its variants (3-5-3). The 4-4-3 and 5-2-3 have been used on the goal line and for short yardage.

There has been a fairly even split in use between the 2-4-5 and its variants (base pass defense) and the 3-4-4 and its variants (base run defense) thus far. One of the truths of football is that the better your offense, the better your pass defense has to be (a reason that the Colts have been bottom dwellers in run defense for a long time, yet win a lot of games, their pass defense is typically quite good), as opponents will have to pass to beat you, running cannot score fast enough. On 3rd down, the down when the defense gets off the field, a form of pass defense is almost always used.

Where Does Raji Fit In?

At first when the switch was announced, many fans were panic stricken that Pickett couldn’t handle all the snaps at the nose, or even handle it period. Last year one of the “problems” with the defense that people seemed to agree on, was that the defensive tackles had a subpar rotation and they “wore down”, especially Pickett. Very few fans, and no reporters, realized just how much pass defense the team would use, and how it differed from the base 3-4 defense. The rotation issue has solved itself, Pickett has seen between a 33% and 50% reduction in the number of snaps that he is playing, and he is playing virtually every 3-4 down. There is absolutely no need to rotate him.

Another problem was that Pickett really didn’t have a backup on the roster. Cole had the body, but had never shown to be much of a player in the A gaps. His place was as a pretty stout tackle when lined up over a G in a 3 tech position. But he was no match for a double team. On the practice squad was Anthony Toribio, a guy lacking the body but having the style to be effective in the A gaps. Miami was developing him as a NT, Ted stole him during a roster maneuver (a counter action by an angry Parcells led to Lansanah being elevated and White released). Toribio was a pleasant surprise for me this summer and I was utterly shocked that he was not claimed after cuts, he reminds me of a poor mans Ratliff.

The fact that some thought that Pickett couldn’t handle it, that others thought that 2 NT’s in rotation were needed, the other thoughts that Pickett would be OK and nothing special, and the predraft assessment that Raji was a NT (and day 1 ready there) made Raji a no brainer pick for Green Bay. This is such a broken logic train, but yes, follow that logic train and Raji is out of position and GB is using him wrong. Numerous people are probably scratching their head, why isn’t Raji replacing Pickett? Why is he an end? He isn’t built like an end, who are typically 6’5″ with very long arms, around 300 lbs with a fairly lean build. Raji is 6’2″, 340 lb, with short arms and fat squatty build, what you look for in a NT.

Ted and the coaches really don’t discuss why they make certain picks and what they see as their future. Let me go back to an earlier statement that I made though. Run stuffers are not top 10 picks. If you notice the ratios, at least 66%+ of the snaps against our 3-4 and variants are runs, 66%+ of the snaps against our 2-4 and variants are passes. Raji from day 1 was a much better pass rusher than run stuffer, he excelled rushing the passer in college.

One of the realities of the 53 man roster is the cross training that must be done to back every position up.

Coming off an injury, and still learning his way, Raji’s snap count is surely down relative to what it will eventually be. Thus far he has been rotating mostly at LDE and that is it. But he has seen a couple of NT snaps. You couldn’t as for a better backup NT and he is a solid backup DE. But….

The 3-4 set is not Raji’s place, at least for many years. Raji is a pass rusher. Once he slows down a little and loses some of his explosion, a step down to 3-4 NT is definitely in the cards, possibly even a little before that if needed. But a man with interior pass rushing ability like his should not be exiled to mostly run downs.

You could not ask for a better 2-4 interior lineman than Raji. In 2-4 sets the 5 tech DE alignment is rarely, if ever, used. You do see a variance of alignments, but the two interior guys tend to align anywhere between 3 tech and 0 tech. One of them will almost always be a little wide at 3 tech, looking for a good 1 on 1 angle to the QB. Sometimes both are this way, sometimes the second lineman with be inside more in an A gap or over the C in an effort to control interior rushing. The second lineman is typically one of two types; not much of a pass rusher, but a run stout guy, however more mobile and a better rusher than the NT, or a good pass rusher that makes the 2-4 set vulnerable to the run. In a 2-4 (or variance) set, there is no man more valuable than a guy that is run stout, that can play the A gaps and eat doubles, while still excelling at rushing the passer. And when your offense is good, really your 3rd down/pass defense should be looked at as your base defense, not your run defense. It will be used as much or more as your run defense, and it is more important to winning games.

So Are We Using Raji Wrong?

No, the problem is that few recognize what right is. Right is not at NT 3-4 (run) sets, which is viewed currently as “starting” and more prestigious, where he is a good backup (and would be a good starter), but his talents would be relatively wasted. Right is at DT in 2-4 set (pass) set, where he can control the middle and still terrorize QB’s. Thus far he has not fully come into that role, being a rotational guy with Jolly, but he has been splitting that job with Jolly.

This will naturally sort itself out as well. He will likely sub in for Jolly more and more on pass downs, and less and less on run downs. Jolly is built to be a better 3-4 DE, and thus far, has been. Raji is built to be a better 2-4 DT, and over time, as he steals snaps from Jolly, he will rotate less and less with Jolly at DE. I suspect by the end of the season we will see very little of Jolly on passing downs, both he and Pickett will come off as the nickel DB goes in, and Raji goes in as well. In the NFL, that is where Raji’s talents will blossom first. Jolly simply isn’t built to excel in a 2-4 set like Raji is.

With time Raji’s head will swim less as it relates to what OL’s are doing to him, then he will really start to take off. Right now he is a little hobbled, and in the midst of rookie defensive lineman syndrome. One thing I’ve noticed over the years, the skill position players tend to hit a wall later their rookie year, the lineman, especially defensive, play their best at the end of the year. There reaches a point where it just clicks for them, and they get much better seemingly overnight.


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3 Responses to “Is Raji Being Used Correctly?”

  1. Brian Says:

    Hey Waldo, it’s Brian from Railbird Central. I sent you a tweet. E-mail me.

  2. Dubyajay87 Says:

    Great write-up Waldo.

    I think we got a taste of him in the Tampa game w/ a good ankle.
    I saw on at least 2 occasions him blowing up his man.

    Glad I bought his Jersey.


    • waldo56 Says:

      Yeah, I though he looked real good in Tampa. Kid’s starting to come around. Early on he looked a little lost with all the stuff OL’s were doing to him, it looks like things are slowing down for him.

      He was much better agaisnt the run in Tampa than he has been.

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