GREEN BAY — When rookie Blake Martinez returned to the field against the Chicago Bears two weeks ago, the Green Bay Packers had their full complement of inside linebackers for the first time since mid-November.
Since then, defensive coordinator Dom Capers resorted to equal parts improvisation and desperation — the former defined by Clay Matthews' brief return to the middle and the latter triggered by the promotion of Carl Bradford from the practice squad to the active roster. The efficacy of the second decision is reflected by Bradford's current employer, the San Francisco 49ers.
But as the Packers have mounted an impressive five-game winning streak, Capers has settled on a pairing of Joe Thomas and Jake Ryan, himself returning from an ankle injury suffered against the Tennessee Titans, while easing Martinez onto the field in smaller portions. Martinez played 24 snaps from scrimmage in the previous two games combined as a cumbersome brace protects the sprained MCL that has yet to heal.
"It’s more uncomfortable," Martinez said. "I think right now it’s just an annoying aspect to have it on. It’s basically like an ankle weight that you basically have to drag along. It obviously keeps you from moving full range and stuff like that. I’m just kind of waiting for it to fully heal type of thing. And once I have that confidence I can kind of make the decision to take it off whenever."
A fourth-round pick earlier this year, Martinez adjusted rapidly to Capers' system and life in the National Football League. He impressed coaches throughout OTAs and minicamp with a deep knowledge of the defense, an insatiable appetite for learning and the type of run/pass duality general manager Ted Thompson sought from the former Stanford product.
The strong offseason parlayed into significant playing time from the outset, and Martinez paired frequently with Ryan, the second-year player from Michigan. Martinez's participation hovered between 60 percent and 75 percent during the early weeks of the season.
But the Packers have worked him in slowly since his return from injury: fourteen snaps from scrimmage against the Bears, 10 snaps from scrimmage against the Vikings. It has forced Martinez to adjust.
"There’s moments obviously where you kind of think oh, OK, I didn’t get the certain reps or whatever practice-wise because obviously whoever is playing is going to be getting the reps," Martinez said. "I think in that standpoint just getting those physical reps (is lacking). For the most part I’ve made sure to use my time wisely, whether it’s having certain games on my ipad that I watch from, I don’t know, other great linebackers in the league or certain things like that. I see what they do, research some things on how do they study film, how do they go at their daily basis, daily routine and just worked on that during that time, made sure I got the most out of it.
"I think for anybody if you’re in there right from the beginning and going through it all you’re going to have the flow of the game, understanding what (the opposing offense is) kind of getting after compared to a guy kind of going in there on certain situations where you’re like, ‘Oh crap, what are they thinking?’ Then you're asking (teammates) around during TV timeouts and stuff like that. I think that’s been kind of difficult. But once gain, kind of just one of those things where hey, depending on if I get 90% of the snaps or 10% I’m going to make sure they’re the best snaps I have."
Instead, the majority of his snaps have come on special teams, where Martinez is a core contributor for coordinator Ron Zook. He played 11 special teams snaps against the Bears and 24 more against the Vikings.
While the knee prevents Martinez from letting loose on defense, special teams is another story. He's diving in to a revised role.
"I think special teams is more kind of straight-line type of stuff," Martinez said. "It’s not as lateral and you’re able to kind of work around it and have more confidence going through those types of plays."