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GREEN BAY – Without peeking down, as if his steps were memorized, Blake Martinez backpedaled precisely five yards into pass coverage, stalking the middle of Soldier Field.
He followed Mitch Trubisky’s eyes. When the Chicago Bears rookie quarterback glanced right, Martinez broke on a route.
It was an instant reaction, something Martinez said he wasn’t able to do as a rookie. One year ago, the Green Bay Packers inside linebacker often was late to arrive. His mind was spinning, instincts lagging behind in his transition to the NFL.
Those instincts are catching up now. Midway through his second season, Martinez knew where Trubisky was throwing. He reached Bears running back Tarik Cohen before the football.
Two hands on the pass. A simple interception.
It slipped through incomplete.
“That one hurt,” Martinez said, “because I looked at it on film, and I was like, ‘Dang, I was right there.’ Because during the play, I stuck my hands out a little. It just felt like it slipped out of my hands, just rocketed through. One of those plays you always look back, like, hey, that should’ve been a huge play for us.
“I want to keep improving on that, and make those impactful plays whenever they come.”
Martinez’s dropped interception — or his pass breakup, depending on perspective — was a snapshot of his development. He said the play showed his improvement, while revealing where he still needs to improve.
Last season, Martinez predicted, Trubisky would’ve completed the pass. Martinez might have been in position to quickly tackle Cohen, but his play speed in 2016 wasn’t fast enough to knock away the football.
“I would’ve just dropped my generic drop,” Martinez said, “and just stood there.”
He’s better able to read quarterbacks now, Martinez said. Quicker to diagnose plays. It hasn’t only led to adequate, if also inconsistent, pass coverage. At times, Martinez flashes big-time potential defending the run.
His emergence this season would have seemed unlikely early in training camp. The Packers peeled back their reliance on traditional inside linebackers this offseason. Determined to be more athletic in the middle, they started rotating big safeties at linebacker in their preferred nickel package.
The Packers still frequently use their three-safety nickel, but Martinez has been a mainstay as the one traditional inside linebacker. He has played 521 snaps in nine games, an 88.1 percent clip second only to safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Fellow inside linebacker Jake Ryan lags behind at 220 snaps (37.2 percent).
Martinez grew up a linebacker. His favorite player was Ray Lewis, whose Baltimore Ravens travel to Lambeau Field on Sunday. Watching the position decline in recent years, Martinez said, motivated him.
“A lot of people came up to me,” Martinez said, “whether it’s media or whether it’s anybody who’s like, ‘Hey, you’re a traditional inside linebacker, and the game is adapting. What’s going to happen to you?’ And I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m going to adapt, and I’m going to become the player I know I am. I know you guys don’t know yet, but I’m going to show you.’ That’s what my mission was this year.”
A year ago, Martinez had time to ponder that mission.
One week after his only game with double-digit tackles, Martinez sprained his MCL last November at Washington. It forced him to miss three weeks just as he was becoming comfortable with the game speed.
Martinez said his time away from the field allowed him to dive into film. He watched other inside linebackers, players such as Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, Seattle’s Bobby Wagner and Dallas’ Sean Lee. The biggest difference, Martinez saw, was how quickly they processed plays. There was no hitch in their progressions, no hesitation when they flowed and filled.
He has tried to emulate them, Martinez said. Enough overthinking. Just react.
It has helped him play much faster. Martinez has become a nuisance for opposing offenses, which are scheming against him more. His second-year jump can best be seen in his surging tackle total. Not only does Martinez lead the Packers but his 76 tackles also are tied for sixth in the NFL.
The Packers have never had a linebacker finish among the NFL’s top 10 tacklers under defensive coordinator Dom Capers. It has happened just once under coach Mike McCarthy, when Nick Barnett finished fifth with 131 in 2007. The last time a linebacker led the Packers in tackles was 2013 (A.J. Hawk).
Martinez had only two tackles Sunday in Chicago, snapping a streak of four straight games in double digits. He said the Bears often ran plays away from him, something he was surprised to see.
“At a certain moment,” Martinez said, “I was like, ‘Why is nothing coming at me?’ I think people are starting to see that this guy is going to be making plays if we don’t have something for him, or if we don’t scheme for him. He’s going to keep doing it.”
Martinez’s tackles aren’t his work alone. In fact, that the Packers have a linebacker among the NFL’s top 10 tacklers might be the clearest indicator of how well their defensive line has played, especially veteran Mike Daniels. At the three-technique defensive tackle position, Daniels consumes blocks from opposing guards, who otherwise could reach Martinez.
With Martinez allowed to roam free, the Packers' defensive interior is boosted by his ability to play fast.
“I see a lot of tackles,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “I can tell you that. He makes tackles all over the place. I just think he’s got a knack for the game, and has a real instinct for finding the football.”
It’s still too early in Martinez’s development to know where his career is headed. At this point, he can go either direction. But two things are clear: Martinez is off to a good start, and he still has a ways to go.
The question is whether Martinez will take the next jump. Great linebackers do more than tackle. The best regularly make game-changing plays.
Look at the linebacker tied with him in tackles, Baltimore’s C.J. Mosley. A two-time Pro Bowler, Mosley is among the small group of elite NFL linebackers. The 2014 first-round pick has eight interceptions and four fumble recoveries in his career, including two picks and one recovery this fall.
Kuechly has 15 interceptions and six fumble recoveries in just shy of six full seasons. Wagner has seven interceptions and seven recoveries in the same time. Lee, who entered the league in 2010, has 12 interceptions and three recoveries.
So the necessary next step in Martinez’s development isn’t a mystery. In his first season and a half, he has one interception (last season) and one fumble recovery (this season). To be elite, he’ll need to start making more of those plays, like the dropped interception in Chicago.
Martinez believes improvement will come in time.
“Slowly, I’m understanding more and more how to take chances,” Martinez said, “how to make those types of plays. For me, I look at that play (in Chicago). Yeah, a lot of people were like, ‘You dropped a big interception.’ For me it’s like, hey, a year ago, I wouldn’t have even been close to that.
“So if I can keep just doing that each and every week, next thing is every single time I get in that drop, I’m making a huge play.”