GREEN BAY – Depending on which statistical chart is consulted, linebacker Blake Martinez posted a career-high of either 15 or 16 tackles in the Packers’ last game.
He also was apparently the leading tackler in the NFL until the Packers took a week off for their bye.
But the numbers are just one indication of how big a leap Martinez has made in his second NFL season, and here’s the thing: He doesn’t believe the size of his leap has yet been defined.
“I look at those things and think it’s cool, but I just know how much better I can be,” Martinez said following Tuesday’s first post-bye practice. “A lot of people last game were like, ‘You had 16 tackles,’ but yeah, I should have had 25. It’s those little plays you left out there.”
Martinez made a big play, personally speaking, over the bye week, putting together an elaborate, surprise proposal to his girlfriend on her birthday that included giving her his No. 50 Packers jersey – which she had been asking for – with “Mrs. Martinez” on the nameplate.
But upon returning to Green Bay, it was all football again for the film junkie who, when around the team facilities, is on his tablet almost anytime he’s not on the practice field.
That was the case last year, too, as a rookie fourth-round draft pick out of Stanford, but the difference this year is what he’s looking for on the film.
He’s got the big picture down, so he’s zeroing in on the smallest of details, such as whether his pre-snap alignment should be one yard this way or that, or whether his drop into pass coverage could have been a yard deeper to create a pass deflection – like the one he got in Minnesota that teammate Damarious Randall picked off.
“On every single play, I’m my most harsh critic,” he said. “Maybe I got a tackle on a play, but maybe I could have got him a yard back. Those little things, or my footwork on this play could have been that much better.”
The result has been a faster, attacking, more impactful linebacker than the one who was in and out of the lineup in 2016 with injuries. The Packers also have needed Martinez even more than expected this year, as fellow inside linebacker Joe Thomas has been sidelined several weeks with an ankle injury and Jake Ryan has dealt with hamstring and head injuries.
While managing a hefty workload, Martinez is also quick to credit the two big guys most often in front of him, linemen Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark, for clearing his path to the ball.
“Amazing. I tell them every day they make my job extremely easy,” Martinez said. “I just tell them, hey, do what you do, whether it’s throwing a dude 5 yards in the backfield or cutting off a run lane, whatever it is. I’ll just make you right, and it’s been working really well for us.”
By make them right, Martinez means adjusting on the fly to their play, filling from behind any gap they might open. Over the last three contests, it’s produced a new single-game career-high in tackles for Martinez each time. According to the coaches’ statistics, Martinez has already surpassed his tackle total from 2016 in just seven games.
He also has a sack, with opportunities for others, and has come close to an interception or two. Assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley sees “a lot of violence and play speed” that comes with seeing and reacting quicker than a year ago, when processing the defensive playbook was the first priority.
“My rookie year I overthought a lot of things,” Martinez said. “I was just like OK, I have this check, this offense out there, make sure this guy is doing the right thing – I overcomplicated things.
“This year I’m more focused on the study aspects during the week, and once I get into the game, it’s just go and play.”
Martinez sees that as the next step for the defense as a whole, now that the unit should be healthier coming off the bye. Sorting out the communication issues that have caught the Packers with too many or too few defenders on the field on multiple occasions would go a long way toward supporting backup QB Brett Hundley with the defense the Packers will need to start winning games again.
“That’s the part that’s been hurting us, across the board – understanding personnel that’s in, understanding the play that’s in, getting everything situated so we can be football players,” he said. “We don’t have to (go) ‘OK, what’s the play call?’ And all of a sudden the ball is snapped.”
As the defense works to smooth out its game, there’s no question through half the season that Martinez will be a big part of where the unit goes from here.
“It’s how far can you grow, and how far can you take it?” McCurley said. “He’s seeing the game much faster, he’s understanding what we’re doing, he’s communicating that much faster, and now he can pull the trigger and go make those plays and be decisive.”