The last time the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears played a winner-take-all game at Soldier Field – the 2010 NFC Championship Game, with a berth in Super Bowl XLV on the line – the victory-clinching play was delivered by B.J. Raji.
The then-second year defensive tackle’s interception and 18-yard return for a touchdown with just over 6 minutes to play in the game not only booked the Packers’ trip to North Texas, it was the latest in a year filled with big plays. In 20 games (including playoffs) that year, Raji recorded 78 tackles, 7.5 sacks, four pass breakups and that unforgettable touchdown, on which he dropped into coverage on a zone blitz, cut in front of Caleb Hanie’s pass intended for running back Matt Forte and took it to the house, the ball extended – a bit prematurely – in his right hand. He crossed the goal line, did his little hula dance and finished his celebration off with an authoritative Aaron Rodgers-style championship belt.
Three years later, the Packers will play another win-or-go-home game against the Bears Sunday at Soldier Field. The winner takes the NFC North title and will be hosting an NFC Wild Card playoff game Jan. 4 or 5. The loser’s season is over.
Raji, meanwhile, is no longer the playmaker he once was. On the cusp of unrestricted free agency in March, the 2009 No. 9 overall pick hasn’t had a sack in 34 games, dating back to Nov. 24, 2011 against the Detroit Lions.
“It comes with the territory, man,” Raji said. “You put up good numbers early in your career, and then when those things dwindle down it’s like, ‘What happened?’ It’s more to the game than sacks. Since I’ve been here, we’ve been top of the league in sacks and that’s what’s more important to me. Individual stuff will come.
“Quite frankly, people that understand the game know what time it is. Everything else doesn’t matter.”
Some of Raji’s decreased production is a matter of opportunity. That interception against the Bears came on third-and-5 from the Bears’ 15-yard line; nowadays, Raji rarely plays on third down. For most of the season, rookie first-round pick Datone Jones and emerging second-year lineman Mike Daniels, who enters Sunday’s game with 6.5 sacks, have handled the two down lineman spots in the nickel and dime defenses, and last week, rookie fifth-round pick Josh Boyd saw action in that package, too.
Raji acknowledged that he misses playing on passing downs – “Obviously,” he replied – but insisted that he isn’t angered or frustrated by it.
“I’m older now and I understand that part of being a good teammate is understanding what is required of you,” the 27-year-old Raji said. “I don’t label myself as a two-down defensive lineman; I’m just a two-down defensive lineman for us this year.”
Raji, whose high snap counts used to be a great source of consternation for the coaching staff, is no longer in danger of being overworked. Last week against Pittsburgh, he played only 33 of the team’s 58 defensive snaps, or 57 percent. While he’s played the most snaps of any defensive lineman this season (585), he’s still only played 57.2 percent of the Packers’ 1,022 total defensive snaps.
For comparison, Raji played 658 of 1,117 snaps last year (58.9 percent) because he missed two games with a sprained ankle, and 885 of 1,182 snaps (74.9 percent) in 2011. During that Super Bowl season of 2010, Raji played 1,092 snaps in 20 games, or a whopping 85.2 percent of the Packers’ 1,282 total defensive snaps.
“B.J.’s been excellent,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said when asked how Raji has handled his reduced role. “We always wanted to reduce his snaps.”
There is also the oft-used argument that Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers doesn’t allow his defensive linemen to “Jet” rush – meaning explode off the ball at the snap and try to beat their blocker immediately – very often. Frequently, linemen are told to hold their block to man their gap, then can try to defeat the blocker and make a play after it becomes clear that it’s a pass play. But Daniels’ production would indicate that it’s possible to get to the quarterback even with limited “Jet” calls.
“I often think about when Dom and Coach (Mike McCarthy) brought me here. They never, ever told me I would lead the league in sacks at tackle,” Raji said. “They told me they liked my abilities and they think I can fit in their scheme, so I’m cognizant of that, too. It’s human nature, particularly when you’re a competitor and when you’re watching other guys around the league have monstrous years, sometimes you have to bring yourself back to reality and back to originally what the agreement was.
“Anybody that knows Dom knows what type of defense he likes. … He likes to stuff the run on first, second down and come after you with all kinds of exotic blitzes (on third down). That’s not going to change. He’s been in the league 30 years; I’m not going to change it.”
But Raji can change one thing: His employer. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported last month that Raji and his agent, David Dunn, turned down an offer from the Packers a few months ago that averaged $8 million per year, an offer that presumably is no longer on the table. Raji is now likely to test the market in spring, and in a 4-3 scheme where he’s given more opportunity to make plays, he could be a difference-maker.
When Raji entered the NFL, there were comparisons with Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp, whose 96.5 career sacks are the second-most ever for a defensive tackle. A three-year starter at Boston College, Raji had 31 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks during his career, including seven sacks and 13 tackles for loss as a senior. On draft day, Capers made it clear that he intended to use Raji both to stuff the run and get after the quarterback.
“After watching him work out at the combine, I felt that he was a rare guy,” Capers said that day. “I liked his movement, his size and movement, I enjoyed the interview that we had with him at the combine. When you watch him, he's not just necessarily a guy who sits in there and eats up blocks. I think he's a guy that you can stunt and move and some of those things, which is rare for a guy that size.”
Now, Raji’s future is uncertain. The Packer have a host of players headed for free agency, including fellow defensive linemen Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson, defensive end-turned-outside linebacker Mike Neal and cornerback Sam Shields.
“I know my value, understand where we’re at,” Raji said. “But right now I’m focused on us (getting) into the playoffs. That’s how I’ve always gone about my business. It’s taking care of the task at hand. I’m a firm believer of your resume speaking for you, and whatever’s going to happen is going to happen.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.