For several weeks now, I've been getting a troubling amount of data suggesting that B.J. Raji is having a relatively poor season. ProFootballFocus.com, a site that grades every NFL player on every play, has had Raji on its list of worst performances of the week every week since Week 5 (excepting Week 8, the Packers' bye). And although respected Journal Sentinel sportswriter Bob McGinn doesn't rate individual players, the past six games have seen him give grades of 1, 3.5, 1.5, 1.5, 1.5 and 3 to the defensive line (ratings out of 5). Clearly, something is up with the Packers' prized nose tackle.
Certainly, Raji isn't dominating teams like he did a year ago. The loss of Cullen Jenkins to free agency has meant that he faces more double teams, and opposing quarterbacks haven't faced much inside pressure from either him, Jarius Wynn or C.J. Wilson this year. But has Raji's season really been that bad? To find out, I went back to the game film of Packers-Chargers from Week 9 (1.5 footballs from McGinn) and graded Raji on every defensive snap he took, run or pass.
Caveats and Methods
I don't necessarily know Raji's responsibilities on each play. Plus, I'm working from the TV tape with these grades, which doesn't always have the best angle for grading a man who plays primarily at right end, so keep that in mind.
I rated each play as positive, negative or neutral. Against the run, I graded positively for plays where he pushed a man into the backfield and clogged up a running lane, neutrally for plays where he fought to a stalemate with the O-lineman, and negatively when he was moved off the line. The pass was a bit more subjective, but essentially I gave positive grades for getting close to the QB or at least driving the blocker back near him, neutral for a stalemate (a little pressure but not much) and negative for plays where he didn't get any pressure or even push the guy back much. I'm not a real football analyst by any measure, but I tried to stay consistent. (I also missed three plays, according to McGinn's count, so take that as you will.)
I graded Raji on 63 plays (McGinn has 66*), 19 rushes and 44 passes. Of the rushes, Raji had a positive grade on five, a neutral grade on two, a negative grade on 11 and an "?!" grade on one.** Of the passing plays, Raji had a positive grade on eight, a neutral grade on 14 and a negative grade on 22.
The "neutral" grade is effectively a loss for the defense as well, as it marks a situation where Raji slightly collapsed the pocket but didn't come close to getting home. Of the eight victories, four came when he got over or under the guard's arm and penetrated closer to Phillip Rivers that way. Four, including his only knockdown, were bull-rushes. McGinn called only two of these "pressures", where Raji got close enough to actually pressure the quarterback, and I would concur. On the other six, Raji was clearly winning against the O-line, but couldn't parlay that into actually getting to Rivers.
Again, I'm not an analyst, so please take this with the caveats it deserves. That said, Raji didn't appear to have the kind of initial burst on the pass-rush that he showed last year. There were a lot of times where he played with his hands up high and was just stood up at the line, or a lot of "neutral" grades where he was locked up with an offensive guard and moved him back a little but couldn't get off the block. He just didn't appear to be getting consistent pressure. The good news is his stamina appeared mostly intact; the Chargers ran on just four plays in the second half, compared to 30 passes, but Raji registered seven of his eight "good" passing plays in the second half.
To be fair, a lot of the pass-blocking negatives happened when Raji had to deal with double-teams, but with one or two exceptions, it didn't look like he was able to split them. He was also moved off the ball a few times by well-coordinated double teams, particularly when he was lined up at left end.
It's hard to fault a nose tackle for shoddy pass-rushing. But Raji isn't really a nose tackle anymore; by my count, he was lined up as an end in the base or nickel packages for all but six snaps. 3-4 ends aren't expected to get pressure every snap unless they're Justin Smith, but you would at least expect a better ratio than 8-for-44.
Raji didn't look stout against double-teams, and a lot of the time, it just didn't look like he was exploding off the ball the way he's capable of doing. Part of that might have been the wet turf, but the Chargers' linemen seemed to handle it fine. The list of positives on his running plays is impressive; he's totally capable of slicing into the backfield, splitting a double-team to pressure the back and closing off rushing lanes. It's just that those moments, in that game, were troublingly uncommon. My verdict: the pundits are right. Raji is not having a good year at all.
*The explanation might be that, due to the resolution on my recording and the camera angle, I wasn't always able to read the numbers on the linemen despite endlessly replaying the footage. So it's possible that I just missed Raji three times (hard to do for a 337-pound man!)
**This play deserves an explanation. Lined up at right end in the base defense, with 2:49 left in the first quarter, Raji was the target of a double-team on a run play. At the snap of the ball, the left guard and the left tackle lunged at him, apparently trying to cut-block him. Raji somehow skipped around both of them, they dove and missed, and he found himself in the backfield. That's good. However, the Chargers' right guard was pulling on the play. Raji was off-balance from coming through the line, so the guard easily flattened him (bad). Good: Because Raji basically used up three blockers, A.J. Hawk was able to come in and wrangle Mike Tolbert to the ground without interference. I don't even know how to grade that, it was so weird (and messed with my metric). The entry in my notes reads "+,-, ?! (UFD)", meaning up for debate.