GREEN BAY – It didn’t take long for Blake Martinez to endear himself to Mike Daniels.
A gym rat known for his tireless study habits, the Packers linebacker was pulling teammates together to watch film and dive into the playbook as soon as he walked in the building as a rookie last year.
He was speaking Daniels’ language.
“I’ve always liked his approach,’” said Daniels, now in his sixth NFL season. “He’s a guy that comes in to me and says, ‘Hey, Mike, let’s go watch film together.’ He definitely understands the role of being a middle linebacker in the defense and what it takes to be a leader.”
Now in his second NFL season, Martinez is beginning to see the fruits of his labor. While the Packers often use a three-headed approach at inside linebacker, Martinez has carved out a role as the inside linebacker in the defense’s “Nitro” nickel.
The hybrid package has positioned Martinez next to safeties Morgan Burnett and Josh Jones, testing the 6-foot-2, 237-pound linebacker’s communication skills and requiring him to build fast chemistry next to his new neighbor.
The results have been positive for Green Bay’s seventh-ranked defense so far.
Martinez, who leads the Packers with 25 tackles, missed a few series in Thursday’s 35-14 win over Chicago while being evaluated for a concussion (he wasn’t diagnosed with one), but he’s still played 172 of a possible 236 defensive snaps this season (72.9 percent).
That’s a spike from the 438 snaps he saw out of a possible 834 in games played last season (52.5 percent).
Frequently seen nestled in his locker with his iPad during his rookie season, Martinez feels a full year of knowledge of the NFL schemes and tendencies is translating on the field.
“It’s just the overall understanding, whether it’s what offenses are trying to get done or what our defense is trying to get done on a given play,” Martinez said. “Whatever play call we have, (it’s) how you can attack it and you know where certain holes are going to open up as the play is developing. That allows you to be there that much quicker, where last year it was a little too much thinking on my part in certain situations.”
A fourth-round pick out of Stanford a year ago, Martinez is one of several members of the Packers’ 2016 draft class to make a difference in the defense early this season.
With Daniels out the past two games with a hip injury, second-year defensive linemen Kenny Clark (first round) and Dean Lowry (fourth) have been tasked with fortifying the defensive front.
The Packers have been rushed against 60 times in those two games, allowing a 3.55 yards per carry and only one carry of more than 20 yards despite Green Bay’s defense playing extensively in the smaller nitro package.
While Clark, Lowry and the rest of Green Bay’s linemen serve as the first line of defense against the run, Martinez, Jones and Burnett have been active at the second level. In four games, Martinez has been credited with four tackles for loss.
“Blake is so instinctual. He triggers so fast,” Lowry said. “His play is just so fast. Once he beats those running backs in the hole, it’s usually a bend backward for him because he has that power to push guys back. Having a guy like that gives you trust because he’s always lining us up correctly. He knows where the ball is going to go and he has a great acumen for football.”
That acumen was showcased in the Packers’ 27-24 overtime win over Cincinnati in Week 3 when Martinez and Jones combined for 23 tackles (four for loss). Martinez’s stop of Joe Mixon for minus-2 yards on the first play of overtime set the table for the defense forcing a three-and-out.
Jones’ speed and aggressive playstyle suit the tactical Martinez well. Like it is when natural inside linebackers Jake Ryan or Joe Thomas are on the field next to him, chemistry and confidence ultimately decide whether a combination will work.
If someone hits a hole or takes a chance on a play, it’s up to the other linebacker to have his back. It’s been a hallmark of Green Bay’s defense so far this season. Martinez has felt comfortable regardless of whom he’s running next to. Recently, it’s been the rookie Jones with Burnett moving to the “star” slot position in nitro the past two weeks.
“I think he’s just a natural football player and easy to work with,” Martinez said. “Whenever you tell him something, he listens. Whenever he tells me something, I listen. He sees things pretty quickly and learns things pretty quickly too. It’s been extremely helpful.”
A few days after the Bengals’ game, Head Coach Mike McCarthy complimented Martinez’s performance before adding the 23-year-old linebacker is doing everything necessary to become “one of those second-year players who has taken the jump” once the season is complete.
There is still work to be done and plays to dissect to make that happen, but Martinez’s maturation gives the defense confidence in his abilities whenever he’s on the field.
“He wants to be the best. He wants people to know his name,” Daniels said. “He wants to show that ‘I belong here. I’m one of the best.’ He just has the right mentality. He has that warrior mentality that you want out of your teammates.”