Evolution could mean fewer snaps for Packers' inside linebackers

Michael Cohen
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers inside linebackers Blake Martinez (50) and Jake Ryan (47) tackle New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings during an NFC wild-card game at Lambeau Field on Jan. 8, 2017.

GREEN BAY - The clubhouse leader for the most popular phrase among players and coaches with the Green Bay Packers is any version of “the way the league is trending.” Those six words — whose variants include “the way the league is going” and “in today’s NFL” — are repeated ad nauseam from coach Mike McCarthy all the way down to practice squad hopefuls.

At face value, the words offer an admission of change, and the idea is applicable to numerous facets of modern football: from the targeting rules that increase player safety to the implementation of the zone read on offense.

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In Green Bay, where defensive coordinator Dom Capers continues to experiment with safeties playing inside linebacker, the phrase is used repeatedly to describe the refinement of body types at one of the game’s most historic positions.

“When I was younger it was always big guys, 250 (pounds), those guys that are run stoppers, straight run stoppers,” said linebacker Joe Thomas, who is 6-0½ and 228 pounds. “The game has evolved into more of a passing league. They’ve got quicker scat guys in the backfield, so I guess now they’re looking for linebackers with the size of big safeties, guys that can cover more than just be run stoppers.”

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The topic itself is nothing new. Morgan Burnett, a starting safety for the Packers, began playing some inside linebacker as early as last spring, and rookie Josh Jones did the same from the moment he arrived in Green Bay. Burnett is 6-1½ and 210 pounds; Jones is 6-1½ and 221.

But the B-side of that record explores the other end of the spectrum, the place where responsibilities might be constricted rather than expanded. For players such as Jake Ryan (6-2½, 240) and Blake Martinez (6-1½, 237), whose bodies are more in line with the traditional measurements of the position, the implementation of bigger safeties offers a different type of competition. There are only so many snaps to go around, and now they are competing with safeties for spots on the field during passing downs.

“If you could stop the run, you were going to get drafted high,” Martinez said of previous decades. “Looking now, you have to be able to play all positions. You have to be able to cover, you have to be able to run, you have to be able to fill the gaps in the run. You kind of see them molding it in that sense where it’s a hybrid safety type that can still do what you need to do in the run but also can cover those guys when they go into that five-wide-receiver set or that one tight end and four-receiver set.”

The Packers have dedicated a significant number of linebacker reps to Burnett and Jones during the first few weeks of OTAs. When one of them moves into the box for nickel situations, one of the traditional inside linebackers trots off the field. Kentrell Brice typically fills the empty spot at safety alongside Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

The end result appears to be the slow decay of the traditional inside linebacker — at least within the confines of the Packers’ roster. (Several players pointed to other linebackers around the league who have the size and speed to stay on the field for every snap.) Instead, specialization appears to be winning out in Green Bay: First down typically belongs to the big boys — as do obvious running situations — but everything else is up for grabs with Thomas, Burnett and Jones all capable of playing nickel and dime.

A year ago, Thomas played 61.4 percent of snaps as the coverage linebacker in nickel and dime. Ryan played 54.1 percent of snaps as the best run stopper at the position. Martinez played 47 percent of snaps and was hampered by a knee injury suffered in Week 10.

With Burnett and Jones being used more frequently, those percentages might dip in 2017.

“You look at our team and you definitely see more of a two-down (linebacker) with a specialty on that nickel linebacker,” said Clay Matthews, who has played both inside and outside during his career. “I think it’s different from team to team. But it’s definitely of importance that position, now more than ever with where the league is going with it being a passing league. If there’s a guy who can do it, fantastic, but we seem to have guys who are stronger in certain areas.”

To put it simply, everything boils down to speed and agility in the modern era of pass-happy offense. Ryan ran the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds coming out of Michigan; Martinez ran it in 4.67 seconds coming out of Stanford. Their playing time can be determined in part by a single question: When the Saints, Seahawks, Lions, Steelers and Panthers — all of whom are on the Packers’ schedule this season — use four- and five-receiver sets, are Martinez and Ryan liabilities in coverage?

“With the pass, you have so many different route combinations, so many different formations that you kind of have to tell, ‘OK, on this split what am I expecting?’” Martinez said. “Especially on the defense you have so many checks and certain formations in the pass game, just being able to read that and adding in bootlegs and play action, all those types of things. I think that’s one of the things I want to improve on this year is just being able to see those things that much quicker and be able to help out the back-end players much more.”

In other words, Martinez believes the mental part of the game is crucial to his ability to stay on the field, and that can only be sharpened with practice reps and film study. The faster he processes things on the field, the faster he can react. And every tenth of a second counts when your top speed is less than the player you're tasked with chasing.

“Those types of things give you the extra two to three steps,” Martinez said. “Maybe this guy runs a 4.4 that they’re putting in on dime packages, but say I run 4.6 or whatever and I can go and have those two to three steps, I’m going to play that much quicker than the other guy that’s just going to be running off of speed.”

Scott McCurley, the inside linebackers coach, waxed nostalgic when asked about the transformation of the position, his voice tinged with bitterness and disappointment. McCurley believes middle linebackers are associated with toughness, grit and leadership that are essential to any defense. In his mind, they embody the physicality of the sport.

From that perspective, it's easy to sympathize with a coach whose players are becoming a lesser part of the defense. It was clear McCurley doesn't like the way inside linebackers have evolved.

“As much as you still talk about the hybrids stuff and matching up in a passing league, at the end of the day, the game demands a physical aspect to it,” McCurley said. “And I think it honors that in a way at the end of the day. So I think with those guys, they know they can fill a role in this defense. They know they can bring some of that mentality, or all of that mentality. And then from there, hopefully their roles can expand. To me, I think you’re always better to keep two inside linebackers on the field.

“We’re going to put the best 11 guys on the field. We’re going to put the guys in positions to have success. There’s no use in keeping guys on the field in positions where they can’t win. That doesn’t make sense on any level.”

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