Martinez an ideal fit to move Matthews to OLB

Ryan Wood
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Stanford linebacker Blake Martinez has plenty of experience in pass coverage.

His ankle looked like a grapefruit before he could even remove his cleat. Four days before the Pac-12 title game, Stanford’s medical staff marched its best linebacker straight from the practice field to the X-ray room. Blake Martinez was “very doubtful” to play against USC, and that felt a little too hopeful.

This was gruesome. Gory. Scary.

“It swells up immediately when they took his shoe off to look at it,” Stanford inside linebackers coach Peter Hansen said, “and it was like, ‘Oh, well we’re not going to have Blake this week.’”

Martinez wouldn’t hear it. Busted ankle be damned. He was diagnosed with a high-ankle sprain, an injury that can keep some players out four to six weeks. Martinez was determined not to miss one.

He spent an “ungodly number of hours” in the training room that week, Hansen said. Lance Anderson, Stanford’s director of defense, said he’s never seen a kid so hell-bent to play. Martinez corresponded with professors through email and phone calls while he received treatment. He couldn’t practice all week. Coaches and teammates patiently hoped for a miracle.

When game day came, they got one.

Profile: Blake Martinez at a glance

Martinez wasn’t just on the field. He led Stanford with 11 tackles, four more than any teammate. His blindside sack of USC quarterback Cody Kessler forced a fumble returned for touchdown at the end of the third quarter. Martinez didn’t test his ankle out until pregame drills. He then played all four quarters, making the “game-clinching” play that sent Stanford to their third Rose Bowl in four seasons.

“I don’t know how he did it,” Hansen said, “but to be able to play in that game based on what his ankle looked like the Tuesday of game week, it’s an all-time story for me. An instant favorite.”

Want toughness in your linebacker? Martinez has it. Hansen called the Green Bay Packers' fourth-round pick “a coach’s dream to work with.” In two years as a starter, Hansen said, he never had a single complaint about Martinez.

Hansen knows more than toughness is required from modern NFL linebackers. Speed. Lateral quickness. An ability to cover running backs, tight ends and, yes, even receivers running routes in the open field. Martinez has that, too.

His 4.67-second, 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine was pedestrian, but no worse. What wasn’t pedestrian? Martinez ran a 4.20-second, 20-yard shuttle, third best among inside linebacker prospects. That, Hansen said, shows what kind of athlete Martinez can be playing in space.

“His time was a really good indicator of who he is,” Hansen said. “He was definitely a sideline-to-sideline guy. Teams would try to run away from him at times, and he would chase it down for minimal gain on the opposite side of the field. So it showed up in games, as well as the combine.”

In hindsight, it seems general manager Ted Thompson knew exactly how to target the inside linebacker position in this draft all along. From the fourth round, the Packers found a second-team all-American linebacker who led the Pac-12 with 140 tackles last season (fifth nationally).

Stanford’s second-leading tackler had 57. It took Martinez five games to reach that mark, surpassing 60 in Stanford’s win against Arizona on Oct. 3.

“He was our biggest playmaker on defense last year,” Anderson said. “You look at the stats, and it’s amazing how many more tackles he had than the next-closest guy on the team. We’re going to miss his production. He was a great leader and tremendous player for us.”

Toughness, instincts and run support always will be a linebacker’s cornerstones, but the Packers have those qualities in abundance with 2015 fourth-round pick Jake Ryan. As a rookie, Ryan became one of three linebackers to record 50 tackles since Thompson became general manager. He joined A.J. Hawk and Clay Matthews.

The Packers desperately need a classic weak inside linebacker, someone who can cover in nickel and dime sub-packages and protect Ryan in pass coverage. “A four-down player,” coach Mike McCarthy described it. That’s the only way Matthews can return to outside linebacker, where he’ll once again be a full-time pass rusher off the edge.

Why all the Pac-12 love in Packers' draft?

There is no way to predict how a fourth-round linebacker will adjust to the NFL, but Martinez is ideally suited to fit the Packers’ greatest need. Stanford played only 17 percent of snaps in its base 3-4 defense last season, Hansen said. In a conference where spread offenses are the norm each week, Anderson said his defense is primarily nickel with two linebackers and five defensive backs on the field.

As for fit, Hansen believes Martinez’s familiarity playing in a de facto base nickel defense should smooth his transition to Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ de facto base nickel system.

“When we had games that the base package was more part of our thought process,” Hansen said, “it’d be exciting. Like, it’s something new. Most weeks, we were expecting to be in nickel the majority of the game. He’s so used to playing in sub-packages that it’s probably more comfortable for him than base packages would be, just the way the Pac-12 is lately. He’s kind of stepping into something he’s probably more used to than expected.”

As a junior, Martinez split coverage assignments with former teammate A.J. Tarpley. The playbook dictated Martinez would most often cover running backs and tight ends, Hansen said. It’s worth noting Martinez was good enough in coverage to split responsibility with Tarpley. Though he retired after one season with the Buffalo Bills because of long-term concussion concerns, Tarpley excelled in coverage last fall with a plus-1.8 grade, according to Pro Football Focus.

Martinez’ coverage portfolio increased last season. He was a “pure cover linebacker” as a senior, Hansen said. Of his 902 snaps, Martinez lined up across a slot receiver 44 times. He played another 37 snaps in strong safety positions, including 19 snaps against Washington State coach Mike Leach’s five-wide passing attack.

“This last year,” Martinez said, “they left it all to me. Every single time we were in our nickel package and our dime package, I would basically stay in. We’d bring in another corner, and I’d go out and cover the tight ends, running backs and those types of things. I felt like this last year, I improved tremendously on that. I feel 100 percent confident to go out there and cover whoever I need to cover.”

Through production, Martinez earned Stanford’s trust on passing downs. Martinez held opposing quarterbacks to a 79.6 average NFL passer rating, according to Pro Football Focus. He was significantly better than the average 85.2 NFL passer rating FBS inside linebackers allowed in 2015.

Martinez’ plus-10.9 coverage grade was the highest of all inside linebackers in college football last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

Hansen said Stanford adjusted its defensive system to ensure Martinez was always in position to handle the tough coverage assignments. After covering running backs and tight ends as a junior, Hansen explained, Martinez was also responsible for No. 4 receivers in his senior season.

“He’s loose enough in the hips that he can cover those guys who want to change direction quickly,” Hansen said.

Anderson points to Stanford’s first game against USC last season as evidence of how well Martinez can play in coverage. The Cardinal had lost its opener at Northwestern. Clinging to a 1-1 record, it entered Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as big underdogs to No. 6 USC.

Stanford led most of the second half, but never put USC away. With the Trojans driving in their last-ditch, two-minute drill, they spread the field. Athletic cornerback Adoree’ Jackson became their fourth receiver, an attempt to jolt USC’s offense.

This was an athletic mismatch. Not just against Martinez, but any linebacker in college football. Jackson is a potential Olympic long jumper. Forget 40-yard dashes. He runs 100 meters in 10.4 seconds.

Martinez stayed tight in coverage. Kessler never threw Jackson a pass. Eventually, Stanford pulled out a season-saving win.

“Like three or four plays in a row in man coverage,” Anderson said. “He did a tremendous job. Never threw the ball to him. It was impressive.”

Martinez will have bumps during his transition to the league. All rookies do. In college, Hansen said, Martinez played close enough coverage to persuade quarterbacks to throw elsewhere. With quarterbacks and receivers developing better timing in the NFL, Hansen knows close coverage will still result in completions.

But Martinez has no shortage of exposure to difficult coverage assignments. In practice, he would line up against Heisman Trophy finalist running back Christian McCaffery and third-round tight end Austin Hooper. He’ll get similar matchups in the NFL.

“It’ll be an adjustment for him,” Hansen said, “but he’s physical and athletic enough to handle that adjustment.” and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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