GREEN BAY - Before the 2016 NFL draft, Blake Martinez worked through the possibilities in his head. He pondered which team would select him. He wasn’t just thinking about which players he’d call teammates.
The Green Bay Packers rookie inside linebacker also wondered which opponents would be in his division. Once the Packers drafted Martinez in the fourth round, he said, the Minnesota Vikings came to mind.
Twice a year, Martinez knew, he could play against future Hall of Fame running back Adrian Peterson.
His first encounter comes early this season. The Packers travel to Minnesota for their Week 2 matchup Sunday night. Martinez knows tackling Peterson is a test every inside linebacker must pass.
“I just kind of want to show the guys,” Martinez said, “that I can be that physical linebacker for them, and be able to make those plays. And, ultimately, not show myself, but show everyone else here why I should belong here.”
There’s a good reason “physical” is a commonly used term inside the Packers’ inside linebacker room this week. Peterson, at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, is an imposing runner who dishes out as much contact as he takes.
But the Packers' defense has to be careful. Physicality sparks aggression. Aggression can lead to over-pursuit.
Peterson feasts on defenders overrunning their lanes.
“He just stays alive,” outside linebacker Clay Matthews said after facing Peterson twice as a run-stopping, inside linebacker last season. “He's able to break tackles. Able to finesse at times. Be a power running back, get on the edge. As well as his great vision, too. He can do it all. Yeah, he's one of those unique guys in the league.”
Martinez anticipates the matchup because of the respect he has for Peterson. He has watched the Vikings running back for years, never studying him on film until this week. Up close, Martinez said, Peterson is even more impressive.
The Vikings beat the Tennessee Titans last week, but Peterson was held to 31 rushing yards on 19 carries. It was the fewest rushing yards Peterson ever had in a season opener, and the first time he’d been held under 75 to start a season.
His lackluster afternoon didn’t change Martinez’ opinion.
“He can literally do everything,” Martinez said. “You always have those backs where it’s like, ‘OK, he can go and catch the ball out of the backfield.’ Or, ‘OK, he cuts back.’ Or, ‘This guy is a straight downhill guy. He can run over guys and gain at least three or four yards at the end of runs.’ You look at him, and he’s doing every single one of those things.
“His ability to find the holes, that’s where I think he gets a lot of teams. (It’s where) basically one guy is out of his gap, and he’s busting it wide open. He’s finding it that fast.”
The Packers have youth at the center of their defense. Jake Ryan, a fourth-round rookie last season, is the elder statesman at inside linebacker. He and Martinez will get most of the snaps on running downs, with second-year linebacker Joe Thomas sprinkled in the dime package.
It’s a tough test for Martinez, but the Packers have shown their confidence in the rookie. He not only earned a starting role early in his career, but also wears the communication helmet that has a headset connecting him with coaches. It makes Martinez responsible for on-field communication before the snap.
Nobody has questioned the Stanford graduate’s smarts. On Sunday, Martinez gets a chance to show his grit.
“He sees the tape,” inside linebackers coach Scott McCurley said. “He knows what it’s about. He’s a student of the game, and he knows that kind of intensity level. He’s played big-time college football. He’s been in games and tackled big backs before. You just tell him to go out, do your job, keep your pads down, run your feet and wrap up. And that’s about it. We expect him to get that done.”
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