Aaron Nagler speaks with Michael Cohen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the expanded role Blake Martinez sees himself taking on in new Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's defense. Aaron Nagler/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY - Shortly after Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy cleaned house and revamped his staff in early January, inside linebacker Blake Martinez received a phone call from Mike Pettine, the new defensive coordinator. They spoke about the style of play Pettine hopes to implement during organized team activities later this spring and, to Martinez's delight, they had an honest discussion about the importance of accountability.
“Just his need and want of having organization throughout every single part, making sure there’s no mental errors, no missed assignments, any of that,” Martinez said. “He was going to be strict on it. He wasn’t going to let anything fly, if you’re a Pro Bowler or a rookie coming in. I think that was kind of the cool stance hearing from him and talking to him about that because that was one of my things that I wanted to voice my opinion on, just making sure everyone is on the right page at the right time and nothing is confused.”
Martinez, who spoke to reporters Tuesday ahead of the Packers’ annual Tailgate Tour, seemed to be echoing the comments of cornerback Damarious Randall, now a member of the Cleveland Browns. Randall drew the ire of McCarthy shortly after the season finale by suggesting the coaches should have done a better job holding players accountable for their mistakes, that trotting repeat offenders onto the field every Sunday was undermining the Packers' defense. (McCarthy shot back at Randall during his season-ending news conference by essentially telling him to mind his own business.)
Though Randall never mentioned specific players, the most glaring offender was rookie safety Josh Jones, a second-round pick from North Carolina State. Jones' debris field of mental errors and missed tackles was crippling in 735 snaps (69.9 percent playing time) as the coaches sought to fast-track his development with ample reps. Likewise, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix nosedived after making the Pro Bowl in 2016 but remained on the field for better than 99 percent of snaps last season. His lack of effort in Week 17 against Detroit was particularly stunning.
“Players weren’t executing what they were being told, and I feel like maybe (that) wasn’t being enforced enough, that we were still allowing guys on the field that wasn’t getting the job done,” Randall said two days after the season finale. “That said, it’s probably why we’ll see some changes, and hopefully change is good.”
The departure of veteran safety Morgan Burnett during free agency left the Packers without their best communicator and stripped the secondary of its most reliable player, another blow to the craterous back end of the defense. To combat it, Martinez, who played 93.3 percent of snaps and tied for the most tackles in the league (144), said he plans to assume more of a leadership role as one of the focal points of Pettine’s defense
At the crux of that plan is taking over the communication headset worn by Burnett, the only direct line of contact between players on the field and the defensive coordinator in the coaches box. Wearing the green dot on his helmet means Martinez will be responsible for relaying play calls from Pettine to his teammates and clarifying any pre-snap confusion. To prepare himself, Martinez said he will approach this year’s organized team activities and minicamp the same way he approached his rookie season: with four to five hours of studying every night to learn the entirety of the playbook for all 11 positions.
“I worked through the whole entire install, learned every position and learned exactly what everyone is supposed to do,” Martinez said. “Just kind of dive in it that way and use that method to make sure I can be ready for whatever they ask me to do.”
Based on his early conversations with Pettine and the new assistants, Martinez said he expects increased latitude for the inside linebackers, especially when it comes to making changes at the line of scrimmage. Pettine's defense, he explained, has "more calls for me to make and more freedom for me to make calls out there as the play is going, or pre-snap calls.” If that proves true, the overall success of the defense will hinge in part on Martinez's recognition skills and his ability to translate thoughts to words in an instant.
“It will be cool to see how much I get to dive into that and how much I can kind of grasp all that and just have fun with it,” Martinez said. “ … It’s just making sure I’m a vocal point out there. I know I was adding things in throughout (last) season. Whenever we were in the huddle, I would say stuff before I called the play and kind of had those things in my repertoire to make sure guys were either motivated or on the right cue whenever they needed some type of — I don’t know — guidance in any way, shape or form.
“I’m hoping that I get it down as fast as I did the first defense.”