GREEN BAY - Blake Martinez could’ve been trapped in the junk. Some linebackers would be caught. Even before the snap, the Green Bay Packers rookie crept toward the line of scrimmage.
He smelled a run play. His instincts were right.
By the time Cleveland Browns running back Duke Johnson took the handoff, Martinez was at the line of scrimmage. He plugged the A gap. Johnson noticed. With no room up the middle, Johnson bounced outside. Martinez pursued.
This is how a linebacker is supposed to defend the run. Scrape down the line of scrimmage, plug the hole. Martinez did everything right.
He just didn’t tackle.
Martinez still was replaying his missed tackle from Friday night’s first quarter in the locker room after the Green Bay Packers' preseason opener. He did the hard part, Martinez said. He reached Johnson in time to stop him for what should’ve been a two-yard gain.
Two arms wrapped around Johnson’s waist, Martinez slipped off. Instead of a short gain, Johnson got 12 yards.
“I read the play perfectly,” Martinez said. “Came through, wrapped him up, and just didn’t finish.”
Martinez knew what he did wrong. At the point of contact, he said, his feet left the ground.
A sure tackler’s feet never leave the ground.
Martinez admits he’s hard on himself after mistakes. In high school, he would let bad plays linger to the next snap. They accumulated through the game, gnawed at him afterward.
A missed tackle in his first quarter of professional football was not what Martinez wanted. But, Martinez said, he learned sulking is no way to play.
“As I went through college,” he said, “I understood that, hey, as that happens, put it in the back of my mind. Obviously, I’m not going to forget about it. But I’m going to make sure that I correct it during those times of practice and those walkthroughs and doing those things – little drills here and there – where that’s where I’m putting my main focus on it.
“But as I step on the field, it’s in the past and I’ve got to step up and play the next play.”
That’s what Martinez did Friday night. It wasn’t the next play, but two snaps after the missed tackle, when Martinez forced the Browns into a third-and-10.
Once again, Martinez’ instincts pulled him near the line of scrimmage. Blitzing the A gap, he timed the snap perfectly. Martinez was past Browns center Cameron Erving almost as soon as he snapped the football.
Hands up, arms flailing, he was in Robert Griffin III’s face before the quarterback could complete his five-step drop. The pass play never had a chance. Griffin threw the football away.
It showed a side of Martinez many didn’t expect when the Packers drafted him in the fourth round this spring. General manager Ted Thompson targeted Martinez to fill the coverage linebacker niche in his subpackage-laden defense. In his senior season at Stanford, Martinez filled the coverage linebacker role almost exclusively.
Before then, Martinez blitzed frequently. It’s a part of his game Martinez was unable to do last fall, something he’d like to reclaim in the NFL.
“I’ve always loved blitzing,” Martinez said. “This past year, they transitioned me into being a coverage linebacker when I was in college. So I kind of missed that. Getting back to it, it’s really fun to kind of time up and understand cadence, that sort of thing. Little cues you can pick up from quarterbacks to time up the blitz that much better.”
If Martinez is able to add pass rushing to his skillset, it’ll only make him more valuable to the Packers defense. He’s already shown one key ingredient for a rookie to get early playing time. No, Martinez doesn’t dwell on bad plays, allowing things to get worse later in the game.
He fixes the mistake. Leaves it in the past. Moves on, and makes plays.
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