GREEN BAY — NFL coaches and coordinators once preferred to utilize an older, established veteran to relay the calls in the heart of their defenses.
However, that mentality has changed in recent years with offenses deploying more big-bodied, swift tight ends and scat running backs who can catch the ball out of the backfield.
Needing to keep up with evolving offenses, the Packers have responded with a youth movement at inside linebacker led by Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan, their fourth-round picks in the past two NFL drafts.
When the Packers take the field for Sunday’s opener in Jacksonville, it will be the rookie Martinez wearing the communication after handling the duties this preseason.
“I think you have to give him a lot of credit for his ability to communicate and understand, because that’s a heck of an adjustment,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “You could see it in the OTAs that he picked it up quickly. We have a new communication process with Dom Capers calling it from the box to the defensive players. After four weeks, it looks like it’s gone very well.”
The position, which often is handled by an every-down player, has the crucial responsibility of transmitting calls from coordinator Capers to the rest of the defense.
It’s the first year coordinators in the coaches’ box will be able to communicate directly with a defensive player on the field. In the past, Capers funneled his calls through associate head coach Winston Moss on the sideline.
Capers and Martinez tested out the new arrangement during training camp with the rookie occasionally messing with the veteran coach, saying he couldn’t understand the call.
In reality, it’s been quite the opposite for Martinez, who’s notorious for his rigorous study habits and attention to microscopic detail.
Prior to his release during Saturday’s final cuts, fourth-year linebacker Sam Barrington praised Martinez for communicating “better than any linebacker I’ve been in there with.”
For Martinez, it comes with the territory. It was his goal to eventually wear the headset when the Packers drafted him. Now, he’ll get a chance to do it in his first NFL game.
“I like it a lot just because of the respect the coaches have,” Martinez said. “I like the kind of pressure and the added understanding of the defense that it gives me. I’m taking it well.”
The more offenses have spread out, the harder defenses across the league have worked to identify linebackers who can tackle on early downs and cover in passing situations.
The need for such a player became evident midway through the 2014 season when All-Pro outside linebacker Clay Matthews moved inside to assist a defense that had dipped to 25th in total yards and dead-last against the run at the Week 9 bye.
While Matthews was voted to the Pro Bowl at the position in 2015, the Packers no longer were willing to concede his pass-rushing ability off the edge to assist the middle of the defense.
Instead, they began renovating their inside linebackers in drafting Ryan and Martinez, and re-signing former undrafted free agent Joe Thomas three weeks into the 2015 season.
Those three now represent the only natural inside linebackers on the Packers’ 53-man roster after the team parted with Barrington during final cuts on Saturday.
“It’s changed. I learned a lot from Sam,” said Ryan earlier this week. “I’m going to work with the guys I have right now.
“Working with Blake those first couple weeks of camp, I think really helped and working with Joe, as well. We just need to keep on moving forward and keep getting our job done.”
Ryan is the only inside linebacker on the roster who has started a regular-season game after moving into the lineup full-time late in the 2015 regular season.
The Packers have been impressed with Ryan’s steady progress. He finished the year with 50 tackles and played crucial snaps next to Clay Matthews during Green Bay’s playoff run.
This offseason, the coaches have been looking for him to take the next step.
“You could really see the second half of the season where the light bulb goes on full-time … playing faster, just the terminology and understanding where you’re not thinking and just playing,” McCarthy said.
Ryan had the opportunity to gain some familiarity working next to Martinez during the offseason program when both Thomas (hamstring) and Barrington (foot) were out.
A hamstring injury early in camp sidelined Ryan for the first three preseason games, but the 6-foot-2, 240-pound linebacker returned in time for last Thursday’s preseason finale against Kansas City, playing 14 snaps alongside Martinez.
“Playing with him during OTAs, we became really comfortable playing together, communicating,” Martinez said. “We really like it a lot.”
Thomas played most of his snaps a year ago as the dime linebacker, but he added about 10 pounds this offseason to improve his chances of playing on every down.
In only keeping three active inside linebackers, the Packers are counting on Martinez, Ryan and Thomas to help assist a young defensive front that will be without lineman Mike Pennel the first month of the year.
They’ll be thrown into the fire early. Jaguars running backs T.J. Yeldon and Chris Ivory await Green Bay’s linebackers on Sunday with Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson soon to follow.
Regardless of the challenge, the young linebackers are confident the last five months of preparation will put them in a position to make an impact inside.
“I think they have that confidence in us,” Ryan said. “Blake, Joe and I going into the games and looking at the games in the past, I think we have a good group of linebackers.”
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