A huge presence
LAS COLINAS, Texas — You can’t hide Green Bay Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji. He is 6 feet 2 inches, 337 pounds. His hearty laugh encourages others to follow. And when he celebrates, he does a little dance.
Yet during the regular season, Raji almost felt invisible. He was a moving piece on a defensive line weakened by injuries. The second-year player out of Boston College not only filled in wherever he was needed, he played a majority of the defensive snaps. Then two weeks ago, he became the guy everyone wanted to see.
Take a quick trip to YouTube, and after a couple of clicks, there is Raji in the NFC Championship rumbling for a touchdown, then propping his hands on his hips and swirling his belly in his new celebration dance.
“It’s so funny, right?’’ said Raji. “I play football all year and I make one play and I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread.’’
This week, Raji is embracing the attention as the Packers prepare for Super Bowl XLV against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Raji is being called “The Freezer,’’ a nickname inspired by William “The Refrigerator’’ Perry. Others are drawing on Raji’s personality to create clever names for hamburgers, celebration dances, and T-shirts. Back in his home state of New Jersey, Raji’s parents are fielding numerous requests for interviews.
The experience is one Raji is enjoying, even if it was generated by one play.
“Oh yeah, of course,’’ Raji said. “Especially at [defensive line],’’ a lot of guys don’t get a lot of exposure. It was a good play, a timely play. We needed it, but it was not the play that won the game. One play does not win the game, but it was a big play for us.’’
That touchdown may have been a pivotal play in the NFC Championship win over Chicago, but throughout the season Raji has quietly provided stability for the Packers. During Raji’s rookie season, he played mostly defensive end, but this year he was moved to nose tackle. In the offseason, he worked to improve his stamina.
“B.J. has played so many snaps this year on defense,’’ said Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac. “We went through a lot of injuries and B.J. was the one guy who stayed constantly healthy.
“You get nervous about that when you have so many other guys who aren’t quite so healthy, but he did a great job in the offseason of preparing himself for the season. He’s in tremendous shape.’’
Trgovac kept tabs on Raji to make sure he wasn’t overworking the 24-year-old player. Without fail, Raji wanted to stay in.
“He never complains about coming off the field, and for a big guy and a 330-pounder, that’s kind of rare,’’ said Trgovac. “A lot of teams try to take their big guys off the field. But he doesn’t come off the field much.’’
Aside from the physical preparation in the offseason, Raji logged time watching film of other nose tackles in the league. New England’s Vince Wilfork was on that list. The Packers and Patriots both run 3-4 defenses, with some differences, but there are enough similarities for Raji to pick out a few techniques to add to his repertoire.
“We’re both working with a small area to get around,’’ Raji said. “The gaps are pretty tight, so I watch how he moves his hips, how he uses his feet and he uses his hands to get clear in tight windows.’’
Whatever Raji takes from other players, he is transforming into a complete package for the Packers. This season, he had 66 tackles and 6.5 sacks.
And his talents were not just for the defense to utilize. Packers tight ends coach Ben McAdoo was among those curious to see if, every once in a while, Raji could be used on the offense as a blocker. The Packers did just that against the Atlanta Falcons in their divisional playoff game.
With second and goal from the 1-yard line, the coaches told Raji, “If you score, everybody scores.’’ And with that, Raji barreled into the end zone, with fullback John Kuhn right behind him. The touchdown tied the game, 14-14, and the Packers went on to win, 28-14.
“He’s a fine athlete, but because of his size, people don’t give him credit for being an outstanding athlete,’’ McAdoo said.
One week later, Raji was scoring his own touchdown against the Bears, the first defensive lineman in team history to return an interception for a touchdown in the postseason.
Raji hopes to establish himself as a nose tackle for young players in the future to learn from.
“He’s a young player in the league and only in his second year,’’ said Trgovac, “but that’s what our goal is.’’
Monique Walker can be reached at email@example.com.