Pay No Attention to BJ Raji-Doug Legursky Matchup Hype
At his best, Doug Legursky is a solid backup offensive lineman with the versatility to play center and guard. Unfortunately for Legursky, he doesn't have Raji's size or strength or long arms. More importantly, he doesn't have Steelers' starting center Maurkice Pouncey's size, strength or arm length.
So with Pouncey questionable for Sunday's Super Bowl (despite his protestations), this would appear to be a prescription for Steelers disaster -- one of the NFL's best nose tackles facing a center who will be in over his head. It's become one of the main themes of this week's Super Bowl coverage.
It's a logical storyline, one that makes sense to everyone. But here's the thing: it's not really accurate.
The Steelers may have all kind of trouble blocking Raji -- he is a very disruptive force. But it's more likely that he'll be causing guards Ramon Foster and Chris Kemoeatu, and even tackles Flozell Adams and Jonathan Scott, more problems than Legursky. Raji may be listed as a nose tackle, but unless the Packers change things up, he won't spend much time lining up heads-up on the Steelers' center.
In charting every snap of the Packers-Bears NFC championship game, as well as significant amounts of Green Bay's playoff games against the Falcons and Eagles, what was apparent is that Raji moves around a lot, but he's very rarely lined up as a traditional nose tackle.
Raji has amazing stamina for a big man. In the Bears' game, Raji was on the field for 61 of 65 snaps. But on only 11 of those was he lined up heads-up on the center. Even that doesn't tell the full story. Because of how the Bears blocked and how Raji fired off, Chicago center Olin Kreutz was only responsible for blocking Raji on seven plays.
The story was somewhat similar in the Eagles and Falcons games. Philadelphia had to make do with backup Mike McGlynn at center, but Green Bay didn't change things up to try to take advantage of him. Raji still lined up predominantly in the A-gap. Against the Falcons, the Packers did sometimes line up with a jumbo defensive line (consisting of three 330-plus pounders) lined up over the two guards and the center, but that was more of a gimmick defense when the Falcons went to two tight ends than a standard approach.
Raji's game is built more around a quick first step than controlling a lineman with strength. Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton generally lines up heads-up on the center or slanted in the A-gap (between the center and guard) at times. But at the snap, he's looking to use his strength to drive the center (or sometimes the guard) backwards. Another of his major jobs is to occupy blockers to let the Steelers' inside linebackers remain unblocked.
In the Packers' 3-4, Raji is generally looking to shoot the gap between the center and the guard. So when he is playing nose tackle, Raji usually lines up with his head in the A-gap instead of directly opposite the center. Against the Bears, that led to him most often being blocked by guards Roberto Garza and Chris Williams. Raji dominated Williams all game, but he very rarely ended up against Kreutz.
That's very good news for the Steelers, as Legursky's mobility serves him well in getting angle blocks and blocking linebackers downfield. Because of his short arms, he's in much more trouble when he's asked to block a nose tackle in a confined space -- something that gave him repeated problems against the Jets. Green Bay could change things up on Sunday to take advantage of Legursky's weaknesses, but it would also be asking Raji to go away from what has made him so successful throughout the playoffs.