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B.J. Raji: 'We'll find out early' if Packers can stop the run

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Matt Forte. Marshawn Lynch. Jamaal Charles.

This could get ugly early.

Or -- and this is a big or -- it just might show that the Green Bay Packers' run defense isn't the Swiss cheese it was last season.

The first three running backs that Dom Capers' defense must face this year have been among the NFL's most productive over the past three seasons. The Chicago Bears' Forte, first up in Sunday's regular-season opener at Soldier Field, ranks sixth among all NFL backs in rushing yards over the past three seasons with 3,471 yards.

In Week 2, it’s the Seattle Seahawks' Lynch, who leads all backs with 4,153 yards from 2012-14.

In Week 3 on Monday Night Football, it’s the Kansas City Chiefs' Charles, who ranks third in that stretch with 3,829 yards.

For a Packers defense that had to rally in the second half of last season just to climb to 23rd in rushing yards allowed (after ranking last at 32nd at the midway point of the season), the first three weeks should tell coach Mike McCarthy whether Capers' unit has made any improvement against the run.

"I think we'll find out early," veteran nose tackle B.J. Raji said. "Ultimately one game is one game, but I think this will be a good test for us, a good challenge. A great back like Forte and a scheme that does enough to keep you honest, so I think it will be a good challenge."

The return of Raji, who missed all of last season because of a torn biceps tendon, should help. Capers planned last year to move Raji back to the nose tackle spot in their 3-4 defense after he played mostly at end the previous couple of seasons. That move finally comes to fruition a year later.

However, Capers won't have his preferred front line because Letroy Guion, projected to start at defensive end along with Mike Daniels, is serving a three-game suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.

In Guion's place, the Packers likely will start Mike Pennel, who was a backup nose tackle last season as an undrafted rookie. It gives the Packers a 337-pound nose tackle (Raji) and ends that weight 332 (Pennel) and 310 (Daniels). It rivals the 1,000-pound line they had two years ago with Raji, Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly. The Packers decided to go smaller (and more athletic) last season, and it did not help the run defense.

Capers hopes there's carryover from the second half of last season, when, in the final eight games, the Packers allowed just 86.38 rushing yards per game. That was the seventh-best total in the league over the stretch. It coincided with Clay Matthews' move to inside linebacker on early downs and the increased role of fellow inside linebacker Sam Barrington.

"I think that's what everyone wants to see, where we're at as far as stopping the run," Matthews said. "We made a big turnaround last year after Week 8, but it's a new year and a new start, so hopefully we start off the right way and resemble that defense you saw late last year."

The Packers were still 29th in the NFL after Week 11. That's when they last played a 1,000-yard rusher from last season. In the final six games, they didn't play a single back who went over that mark last year, so perhaps that improvement was a mirage.

"We know that we're going to get challenged and challenged early, especially with a couple linemen not being in there, so other guys have to step up, have to perform," Capers said. "We're going against probably three teams that are going to put as much emphasis on running the football than any in the league and three really good running backs."