GREEN BAY – There’s a marble-sized hole scabbed over the bridge of Blake Martinez’ nose. It’s a linebacker’s trophy, a gruesome badge of toughness, the kind of “injury” often bragged about.
It happened last week during practice. A running back came crashing through the hole. Martinez met him like a wall.
“My helmet came down,” Martinez said, “scraped it open.”
For Martinez, that hole on his nose is more than a flesh wound. Here’s a painful reminder of his workplace hazards. The Green Bay Packers rookie was drafted in the fourth round to be a “coverage” linebacker, to thrive playing in space, gobbling up snaps in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ nickel-heavy system.
Toughness was supposed to be Martinez’ weakness. But life at inside linebacker comes with daily bumps and bruises and bloody noses. Through his first two regular-season games, Martinez had something to prove.
Which makes him similar to the man he lined up next to.
Jake Ryan was supposed to be Martinez’ opposite. The second-year linebacker is a thumper, with tangled feet but a nose for the football. Inside the box, Ryan sniffs out ball carriers like a bloodhound. Outside, the scouts said, his stiff hips would be a liability in coverage.
Physically, there was one knock Ryan entered his second season wanting to dismiss.
“I think just working on my man coverage,” he said.
They were expected to be complements for each other, completing an imperfect whole. Martinez wasn’t tough enough to consistently stop the run; Ryan wasn’t athletic enough for one-on-one pass coverage. It’s why both slipped to the draft’s final day.
The scouts still could be right. Career-defining perceptions are not disproved in fewer than 10 starts. It’s clear, though, what Packers general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy think of their young inside linebackers.
Thompson was comfortable enough to release veteran Sam Barrington in the Packers’ final cuts; McCarthy confident enough to keep Clay Matthews on the edge despite only three inside linebackers on the depth chart.
Their faith has been rewarded through two games. With Ryan and Martinez playing base and nickel – handling almost 70 percent of the defensive snaps apiece – the Packers are the NFL’s top-ranked run defense. Ryan had the defense’s best coverage grade last week in Minnesota, according to Pro Football Focus.
“I think we have a good rotation now,” Ryan said. “I think with Joe (Thomas) and Blake, Joe is more of our fast-nickel guy, and going out there in our dime stuff, too. I think the coaches have it down in what they want to do with us.”
The soft middle of the Packers' defense has been a problem for years. In 2014, the depths of that problem went so deep, McCarthy had to move his best pass rusher off the edge. That’s where Matthews played 24 straight games, through the end of last season.
Even with McCarthy’s determination to kick Matthews back outside this fall and keep him there, it was fair to wonder whether the Packers could afford it. They kept only three inside linebackers on their depth chart, two fewer than what used to be their ideal allotment. Ryan (age 24), Martinez (22) and Thomas (25) have a lot on their shoulders.
The youth movement would’ve been hard for Capers to stomach earlier in his career. In his third decade coaching NFL players, Capers’ philosophies developed at a time when veterans filled starting linebacker jobs.
Out of necessity, he has adjusted his approach. Capers said he asks his linebackers to do a few things well, instead of several things at once. It helps them play fast instead of being bogged down with a mental checklist.
Over time, he said, the “ready list” of responsibilities will grow.
“It’s like a lot of things in this league,” Capers said. “You adapt to what’s here and now. Yes, probably 15 years ago, it would have made you nervous. But I like where both of those guys are. They’re both very conscientious, they both prepare well. I think they learn from going out. They’re like all young guys, they’re going to make some mistakes, but they normally don’t end up repeating the same mistake.”
Because of the nature of Capers’ system, Ryan and Martinez have to bond in a way Thomas doesn’t.
As the dime linebacker, Thomas is a solo act in the middle of the Packers' defense. He is the lone inside linebacker when the Packers play six defensive backs at once, charged with covering a large swath of the field.
In nickel and base, Ryan and Martinez line up side by side. They have to operate in unison, two players moving as one. Ryan missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury, an absence that could have limited his chemistry with Martinez.
It hasn’t been a problem through two weeks. Already, Ryan and Martinez show a rapport, like they’ve played more than two games together.
“When we’re out there,” Martinez said, “we kind of understand what the other is going to do. We understand communication-wise that I’m going to have his back, and he’s going to have my back. I think that just takes reps. I think just understanding from certain plays that we call. We know we have this, we know we want to try to make it look like this, or do certain things to confuse the defense. Just looking at him, me and him are just understanding instantly we’re going to show this, or come back across the ball, or something like that.
“You don’t have to really communicate with him. I think that really started showing up with reps, and just understanding the defense and understanding the spots we want to be in.”
Martinez said their on-field chemistry has been easy because of how well they relate off the field. Both have similar personalities, he explained, frequently “messing” with each other. They share several hobbies, including video games.
They also have their own nickname cooking: “Jake and Blake,” a rift off the “Shake and Bake” celebration between Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s characters in Talladega Nights.
Ryan is more reserved than Martinez, at least with the media. Teammates tease him about being nervous in interviews. His face turned red this week when asked how the “Jake and Blake” moniker started.
“Oh, my God,” Ryan said, shaking his head. “I don’t know.”
Finally, Ryan gave his blessing to use the nickname. It might not be going anywhere soon. Both linebackers are young.
The Packers would like "Jake and Blake" to be the interior foundation of their defense for years to come.
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