GREEN BAY – The next-man-up credo does not change. Never has, never will. But there’s something else you can count on Mike McCarthy saying whenever one of his players suffers a season-ending injury.
Invariably, the Green Bay Packers coach will talk about how he feels for the player, how he is empathetic and disappointed for the player on a personal level. While football marches on, you do feel bad for the guy whose season is over.
In the case of nose tackle B.J. Raji, who suffered a torn right biceps during Friday night’s preseason victory over Oakland and is now expected to miss the entire 2014 season, his injury may not have as significant an effect on the Packers’ defense as one might think. While Raji was having a resurgent training camp and appeared to be regaining his top form upon his return to his natural position, the Packers have never been a heavy base defense team under coordinator Dom Capers.
In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Capers used his base 3-4 defense on just 252 of 1,015 snaps (24.8 percent). Although Raji would have also seen action in the “big nickel” package as one of the two down linemen when the Packers wanted to have five defensive backs on the field but also be prepared for possible runs, the reality was that Raji would not have played the true nose tackle position – the one he came back wanting to play – on the majority of snaps.
Nevertheless, no Packers defensive lineman played more snaps over the past five seasons than Raji, who led the line in snaps played in each of the past four seasons. After playing 355 as a rookie, he played 884 regular-season snaps in 2010, 885 in 2011, 658 in 2012 and 618 last year.
To be sure, the Packers would have a better chance of delivering on McCarthy’s big-letters promise of defensive improvement with Raji in the mix. They finished 25th in rushing yards allowed per game last season (125.0) but 29 th in yards per carry allowed (4.63). Losing someone of Raji’s girth and experience isn’t something that’s easily shrugged off.
The Packers’ lack of depth at the nose tackle position isn’t particularly reassuring, either. Veteran Letroy Guion, signed to be Raji’s backup, has yet to practice because of a pre-training camp hamstring injury that landed him on the non-football injury list. When Raji departed on Friday night, he was replaced by 2013 fourth-round pick Josh Boyd, who isn’t a prototypical nose tackle but can play there if need be. The only other nose of note is undrafted rookie free agent Mike Pennel, who was having a strong camp even before Raji’s injury and now is a safe bet to land on the 53-man roster.
But the reason Raji’s loss stings is that he seemed to be returning to his old form, playing at the position he’s most comfortable and seeming rejuvenated by it.
“He’s got the right attitude right now that we’re looking for,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said earlier in camp. “He’s focused in. We’re trying different things with him and trying different techniques. Some of it’s different and some of it’s the same.”
Raji, meanwhile, hadn’t looked like the same player that had gone more than two years without notching a single sack. He appeared motivated, energized. Playing on a one-year, $4 million prove-it deal with incentives that could have pushed its value to $6.5 million, he seemed to be playing for his reputation more than an increased paycheck.At 28 years old, he won’t be a hot commodity when he hits the open market again next spring, either.
“I think every year is a ‘prove it’ year for everybody. But particularly in my case,” Raji said earlier in camp. “”It wasn’t like I went into it with closed eyes. I came back with something on my mind, and that was to help the defense become the best that we can be. And, obviously, I have some individual goals.”
Now, he won’t achieve those goals this season. But the Packers defense still has ample opportunity to achieve its goals without him.
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.