There was an error in this gadget

Sunday, January 23, 2011

BJ Raji's Pick-6 Puts Icing on Cake for Green Bay's Disruptive Defense

CHICAGO -- Through his quarter-century of calling NFL defenses, Dom Capers has blitzed hundreds of quarterbacks thousands of times.

Some of those blitzes, though, he stashes away for the very special occasions.

Like third-and-15 when you're trying to get to the Super Bowl, for example.

"You've heard me say this many times, but it comes down to two or three or four plays a game" Capers said Sunday night. "We were able to make those today."

So much of the pregame focus was on red-hot Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers that a top-five defense that specialized in creating turnovers went fairly unnoticed -- at least until it made the defining play of Sunday's NFC championship game and helped send the Packers to their first Super Bowl in 13 years.

"I couldn't believe he threw it," nose tackle B.J. Raji said.

Neither could the 62,377 at Soldier Field, most of them Bears fans, who watched third-team quarterback Caleb Hanie put the ball right in the hands of a Raji. Green Bay's massive defensive tackle then raced 15 yards for the touchdown that proved the decisive margin of Green Bay's 21-14 victory in the 182nd meeting of the NFL's oldest rivalry.

The Packers (13-5), winners of five straight, including three on the road as the conference's sixth and final seed, will face the winner of Sunday's Jets-Steelers game in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, on Feb. 6.

"I'm numb," Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy signed afterward. "It was a typical Green Bay-Chicago game, with everything on the line."

Actually, the stakes made for more of an atypical Bears-Packers game. And it was because these teams knew each other so well -- the second meeting of the season was just three weeks earlier -- that Capers and the Packers threw some new spices into his defensive stew.

"When you play a team three times, you have to be able to mix it up a little bit in order to present some problems," linebacker Clay Matthews said after his unit held the Bears to 132 total yards through three quarters and forced three interceptions, including a pick by cornerback Sam Shields to ice the outcome with 37 seconds to play. "We went with some new schemes, lined guys up at some different positions and tried to throw them off a little bit."

By doing so, they thoroughly confused the conga line of Bears quarterbacks that started with Jay Cutler (who left with a knee injury), gave way to Todd Collins (who was benched for playing like Todd Collins) and Hanie, who'd thrown all of 14 passes in three pro seasons.

Pro Bowl cornerback and former Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson provided the biggest wrinkle. Capers made "Corner Open" a prominent part of Sunday's packages, with Woodson moving from his corner spot to strong safety to give Green Bay a faster three-corner look to match against the Bears' speedy wide receivers and big-play tight end Greg Olsen.

"Just a little change-up," Woodson said. "I think it was effective."

It definitely rattled Cutler, who completed just six of 14 passes, threw an interception and was sacked twice before checking himself out of the game after the first possession of the second half.

"He seemed sometimes to be rushing things," defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins said of Cutler. "Other times, he just didn't look comfortable."

If Cutler never looked comfortable, the 39-year-old Collins looked like he had a porcupine in his shorts. Collins, who had a passer rating of 5.6 for the regular season, went 0 of 4 in two series.

Then came Hanie.


If Capers confounded Cutler, a fifth-year veteran, imagine what was going through the head of a Hanie -- who was inactive for all but two games in 2010 -- as the Packers feigned rushes here, backed out of others there, and sent blitzes from all spots and angles.

Like the one that decided the game.
Green Bay had several opportunities to blow it open, none better than when Rodgers, his team up 14-0, was intercepted by middle linebacker Brian Urlacher on the Chicago goal line early in the third quarter. After the Bears scrapped Collins following two possessions, Hanie marched Chicago to a touchdown to cut the Pack's lead in half early in the fourth quarter.

Two possessions later, the margin was still seven when Hanie faced a third-and-15 from the Bears' 15.

To Hanie's left, Shields came charging on a corner blitz. In front of him, Raji engaged his blocker for only a moment, then backed into coverage in the middle of the field.

"You think you might get the hot read and quick throw there," Capers said, explaining the quarterback's thinking. "Many times a quarterback won't see that lineman popping in there."

Especially a quarterback that rarely plays.

Hanie thought he had tailback Matt Forte circling out. What he had was a wide-open, 337-pound nose tackle.
"All I had to do was catch it and I knew I'd be in the end zone," Raji said.

Raji, the second-year pro and former first-round draft pick, has been used as a fullback in goal-line packages on offense this season, but the image of the big guy rumbling for the put-away touchdown figures to be an NFL Films favorite for a long time.

"I guess now we have to throw him in the ball, since he's shown he can catch and score," McCarthy said.

The Packers can save that one for Super Bowl XLV.

Bet Capers will have a little something special for the AFC champions, too.

No comments: