GREEN BAY – When Christian Kirksey first saw his new playbook with the Green Bay Packers' defense, it didn’t take long for familiarity to set in.
Kirksey, a free-agent acquisition this offseason, will be in a new situation with the Packers. In six seasons as an inside linebacker with the Cleveland Browns, he was never on a winning team. Now, with a team fresh off a 13-3 record and NFC Championship game appearance, the expectations are different.
But Kirksey’s knowledge of the Packers' defense – and his role in it – might not be all too different than what he has experienced before. Reunited with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who was Kirksey’s head coach in Cleveland during the first two seasons of his career, the familiarity makes for an easier transition.
“As soon as I opened the playbook, man,” Kirksey said Wednesday on a Zoom call, “I was so familiar with it and his defense. As a rookie and in my second year, I was in his defense and the only difference is picking up the terminology. Of course you’ve got to change the terminology – teams change, coaches change teams, players change teams all the time. so you’ve got to change the terminology so they won’t get an edge on you.
“So that’s really the only thing that’s different. Everything else is familiar.”
Kirksey joins a defense with established leadership from edge rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, as well as veteran safety Adrian Amos. Regardless, he’ll be the most experienced Packers defender, nobody else on that side of the ball matching Kirksey’s six seasons.
He’s also joining the most inexperienced position on the Packers' defense. Aside from Kirksey, only 2017 third-round pick Oren Burks has played multiple seasons.
So Kirksey is perhaps the most likely defender to wear the communication helmet, a hat Blake Martinez relinquished when he signed as a free agent with the New York Giants this spring. Kirksey’s familiarity with Pettine’s system will be especially important given the virtual reality offseason that has kept players off the field, away from coaches.
“I had the green dot for a couple years,” Kirksey said. “Being in a position of leadership, I have no problems getting the calls, getting the guys lined up.”
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For Kirksey to lead before the snap, he’ll have to stay on the field. The Browns released him this spring after two injury-plagued seasons. Kirksey played only two games last season before going on injured reserve because of a pectoral injury. Injuries limited him to just seven games in 2017.
Pettine acknowledged some risk with Kirksey’s difficulty staying healthy, but said it was a risk the Packers were willing to make for what he could potentially provide the defense.
“Just going through the medical part of it and talking to our people,” Pettine said, “they didn’t think it was anything that was long term. I mean, he’s never been a guy that’s been injury prone. So obviously that’s a concern when you see the amount of time that he’s missed, but overall I just think it was a great signing for us for a lot of reasons.
“We’re not just bringing a really good player into the room. I mean, this is a guy who has great leadership ability. He already has a head start on learning the system with him being drafted, obviously, when I was in Cleveland. So certainly it’s a risk when you look at it, but certainly it was a risk that we were more than willing to take.”
Kirksey said he’s in a “good head space” as he enters 2020. His release led to a better situation, the opportunity to win. Finally healthy, Kirksey believes he can be a significant contributor to a rising defense.
“I just think of all the good that came out of my injuries,” Kirksey said. “Obviously it sucked, because I want to be out there. I wanted to be playing. That’s what I am. I am a football player who loves the game of football, but it wasn’t God’s plan for me to play last year. When I look back at it, I can say if I could have done anything differently up to the point where I got hurt, I would have said no. I trained. I thought I was in the best shape of my life going into the season, and it just was an unfortunate (pectoral) injury that I had, but it was something I couldn’t control.
“I’m excited that I’m feeling good. My pec is back. I got cut and got picked up by a great team. It couldn’t have happened in a better way. Almost feels like a Cinderella story.”