GREEN BAY – If you were to pick the guy the Green Bay Packers defense could least afford to lose this season, your thoughts would naturally shift toward Mike Daniels, Nick Perry, Kevin King and Clay Matthews.
Those are the big names, the guys who have the potential to lead the resurrection of this maligned unit.
But really, there’s a strong case to be made for the third-year guy from Stanford who almost never gets mentioned despite being the nerve center of new coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense.
Aaron Rodgers, David Bakhtiari, those are easy Nos. 1 and 2 on offense, but Blake Martinez?
Is he really the guy the Packers can’t live without this season? The one who might be the linchpin of this amorphous collection of Dom Capers holdovers, Mike Pettine castoffs and wide-eyed young guys?
Yes, Blake Martinez.
Even before inside linebacker Jake Ryan went down with a torn ACL, Martinez was being prepared for the professional equivalent of the 12-hour work day with the possibility of no days off. Pettine, like Capers, inserted Martinez into the middle of the defense to make tackles and direct traffic.
Only Capers might take Martinez out on third downs and put in a faster cover linebacker. Pettine hasn’t shown any sign of taking Martinez off the field, even if it’s for a drink of water during a TV timeout.
BOX SCORE: Packers 51, Steelers 34
Once Ryan went down, Martinez became the constant in the middle. The others – most of them rookies or first-year players – just rotated in next to him, following his direction and trying to show they deserved to be his partner.
In the early part of camp, he was getting scads of practice repetitions, all in the name of training him to be a four-down linebacker and letting him rub off on the young guys, especially third-round pick Oren Burks.
“I want to be in there the whole game,” Martinez said early in camp. “I don’t want there to be a moment where they think they should take me out, whether it’s rest or anything.
“I don’t know their thought process but making sure I get as many looks as I can, especially with it being a new defense being able to see checks, stunts, whatever to get our defense in the right situation.”
The reason the Packers can’t live without Martinez is two-fold:
First, there’s no one with his all-around ability; he finished tied for first in the NFL in tackles – including a team-high 10 for loss – had a sack, an interception and 11 pass deflections. Areas where he could have been better were blitzing the quarterback and missed tackles.
The 6-3, 233-pound Burks is a marvelous athlete with tons of potential, but he rarely had to take on 320-pound linemen when he was playing a hybrid safety position at Vanderbilt. His ability to get off blocks and make tackles in traffic will be tested, given he’s the likely other starter.
The other candidates such as Ahmad Thomas, Greer Martini and Naashon Hughes are playing a position they did not play for four seasons in college and thus aren’t ready or can’t play all four downs.
Second, none of the inside linebackers knows the defensive calls and adjustments as well as Martinez, and while the sharp Burks is learning as fast as he can, Pettine would probably have to find someone else to lead the defense if Martinez weren’t there.
“Blake is one of the quarterbacks of our defense,” nose tackle Kenny Clark said. “He’s one of the leaders of our defense. He’s controlling everything, making sure we’re lined up and everything. Signaling and getting the checks right.”
Putting that kind of pressure on Burks could be a disaster. It’s not like he wouldn’t try his best to do it, but he’s struggling with dropping in zone coverage, avoiding blocks and remembering every rule he’s supposed to follow based on formations and alignments.
His natural talent is evident. When Martinez is in the game with him, he’s thinking less and chasing the ball more. Burks' ability to pursue sideline to sideline and shoot through gaps has been evident over the first two exhibition games.
“’OB’ has flashed some things,” Pettine said. “The transition from the college game to the NFL, it takes some time. He’s very intelligent, he processes very quickly, but there’s still just that learning curve. It’s tough for those guys to come in, and it overwhelms them a little bit at first.”
In the exhibition victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night, Burks took his lumps even when Martinez was in the game.
On Pittsburgh’s third possession, Burks appeared to bite on a crossing route, leaving his side of the field open for a 21-yard pass completion. On the next play, he had a chance to chuck slot receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster at the goal line and knock him off his route, but Smith-Schuster ran by him and caught a 4-yard touchdown pass.
“I think my primary thing is flying all over the field and wherever the ball is trying to get to it,” Burks said. “That’s my calling card. I feel confident in (my) play, but I want to clean up the mistakes, like technically.”
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Later in the game, Pettine took Martinez out and let Burks run the defense. It means receiving the play through a radio receiver in his helmet, making sure the defensive line is aligned correctly and communicating any changes with the secondary prior to the snap.
It has taken Martinez two full years to master all of that and should he go out, Burks would be forced to do it with two months of real work behind him.
“I feel like Blake commands respect of the defense and he’s like in everything and so when he’s out I have to take over that role,” Burks said after the Steelers game. “That’s something I’m working on, just be more vocal.
“But I feel like I handled pretty well; definitely some things I could clean up.”
General manager Brian Gutekunst will be on the lookout for veteran help at inside linebacker. There may be some options after teams cut to 53 and it wouldn’t hurt to have someone there to fill in if Burks’ transition from college safety to NFL starter doesn’t go well.
Last year, Martinez played 982, or 93.6 percent of all defensive snaps. His durability was appreciated, but suffice it to say, his body was a wreck after the season. After two years of playing with a less-than cut figure, Martinez went to work during the offseason on re-shaping his body.
He came back weighing the same, but it is evident that he is slimmer and moving better than he was a year ago.
“Basically this last offseason, I don’t know how to say it –not rebuild – but playing as many snaps as I did focused on kind of getting my legs right, making sure my stability is right, my knees were right, all the stuff that was hurting from the season,” Martinez said. “I stayed up here and toned up and made sure I was as fast as possible and as quick as possible.
“You need to adapt to the game and (with) getting older and make sure your body keeps going for as long as the season needs it.”
As far as the Packers are concerned, that need couldn’t be greater anywhere on defense.