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Hail to Green Bay’s Most Underappreciated Player

. . .Now I get this empty feeling
When I look into your eyes
I don’t see the love light shining
I don’t know what’s going on

You better kiss me
‘Cause you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone

Brooks and Dunn

Someone needs to stand up for the Packers’ tackling machine. I’ll gladly do so.

How inside linebackers are utilized varies greatly from NFL team to team. Teams are fairly evenly split on using a 4-3 formation (4 down linemen and three LBs) or a 3-4 formation (3 down linemen, 2 OLBs and 2 ILBs). Green Bay, however, mostly uses a 3-3-5 setup: three (or just two) down linemen, two edge-rushing OLBs, one ILB – lined up opposite the center but about four yards back from the line of scrimmage – and 5 (or even six) defensive backs.

This is in accordance with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s belief it’s better to give up small chunks of rushing yardage than big chunks of passing yardage. With five or six defensive backs often lining up on the Packers defense, Martinez has fewer receiver-guarding responsibilities than most ILBs.

When he’s not dropping back in pass protection, Martinez is responsible for following the ball – whether a rusher goes up the middle, through the tackle gaps, or even on sweeps to the left or right. Pettine’s system requires a capable tackler in the middle.

Martinez has lots of critics – many of whom follow this blog. The common complaint is that he makes gobs of tackles but only after a running back is five yards or so downfield. Oh, and he’s too slow. But the way Pettine’s defense is designed, it’s only when an opponent’s rushing is becoming too damaging that Pettine is forced to take out one of five defensive backs and insert a second (true) ILB to assist Martinez. When Blake has had any help this year, it’s usually come from either B. J. Goodson or Chandon Sullivan.

When the Packers are on defense, I’ve been focusing on Martinez for the last ten weeks – it was on September 21 that I hazarded the opinion that Martinez was being unfairly ridiculed by many media critics and fans (see here). What follows is a more detailed argument that Blake deserves better.

Blake Martinez 50

Aug 15, 2019; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson (8) is tackled by Green Bay Packers linebacker Blake Martinez (50) in the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium. Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The Top Tier ILBs

Who is arguably in the top tier of NFL inside linebackers? Since the main mission of an ILB (especially in Green Bay) is to be a run-stuffer, I’ve focused on numbers of tackles, and I used a large time sample, namely, from 2017 to the present. There are only three players in the conversation, as the drop-off below them is huge:

Blake Martinez (GB) – 416

Bobby Wagner (SEA) – 400

Luke Kuechly (CAR) – 369

As to awards, there is a chasm of disparity. Luke is a six-time All-Pro (1st team 5 times). Bobby is a five-time All Pro (1st team 4 times). Blake has never been an All-Pro, or even a Pro Bowler.

All three of these comparators are ironmen. Blake hasn’t missed a game in this time frame, and Luke and Bobby have missed but one each.

When it comes to pedigree, we find some marked differences. Luke was the 9th overall pick in the 2012 draft. In that same draft, Bobby was chosen in the second round, 47th overall. Blake, out of Stanford, was taken in the fourth round in 2016, the 131st overall choice. Blake’s an overachiever.

Where career-wise are these three players? Wagner, now 29, had his peak season in 2016, when he accumulated 167 tackles. He’s a bit past his prime, though he’s only tailed off a little. The 28-year-old Kuechly actually peaked in his rookie season, when he had 164 tackles; his numbers are down too, but again only by a bit.

The 25-year-old Martinez is still approaching his peak; his 142 tackles in 2017 and 144 in 2018 place him in the top three each year. He’s currently in second this season, one tackle behind Wagner. Blake is projected to reach 158 tackles by season’s end. Unlike Kuechly and Wagner, Blake’s best years are almost certainly still to come.

Packers LB Blake Martinez makes a tackle

Sep 26, 2019; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers linebacker Blake Martinez (50) tackles Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Alshon Jeffery (17) during the third quarter at Lambeau Field. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Based on My Observations. . .

What I’ve seen of Blake Martinez over the last ten games has impressed me. He seems to have at least average speed for his position, as is reflected in his 4.71 40-yard dash time (65th percentile at the NFL Combine). Luke’s corresponding time was 4.58 (93rd percentile) and Bobby’s was 4.46 (96th percentile). That’s more evidence that Martinez overachieves. By the way, I don’t believe in ridiculing (as opposed to being honest about) any player who is playing up to the best of his abilities.

From his middle-of-the-formation perch, Blake roams not only in the middle but from sideline to sideline – you’ll see him in on a lot of tackles on screen passes to the right or left flat.

It seems to me that Blake’s assignment is to be a positional player, not one who shoots into gaps in the line for lots of tackles for losses. Third- or fourth-down and short, are about the only occasions you’ll see him up near the line of scrimmage – and he’s contributed to making some big stops in those situations. He basically plays centerfield for Mike Pettine.

The rap you hear is that Blake makes lots of tackles, but mostly after runners are five or six yards downfield. There’s some truth in this, but it’s also dictated by Pettine’s defensive plan. On most plays, Blake is the next line of defense whenever a running back gets past the Packers’ down linemen – who sometimes number as few as two.

As to his tackling ability, his lack of quickness causes him some trouble with quick and shifty runners, where he has little choice but to dive at their lower legs.

Blake’s typical tackle is the bear hug – he has a strong upper body, so when he tackles high, rushers seldom escape his grip. I feel that Blake has gotten more physical, rugged, and intense with each passing year.

Maybe some of his critics keep thinking about his performance when he was a less experienced first- or second-year man. Or maybe the notion is a carryover from the times A.J. Hawk patrolled the center of the field for Green Bay (2006-14). Or maybe it’s due to Pro Football Focus (see below).

Hawk, however, was never as prolific a tackler as Martinez; he registered double-digit tackles in five years, but never exceeded 120 in his 10-year career (the last with the Bengals).

Hawk’s 628 tackles as a Packer ranks him second-most all-time – he trails only safety LeRoy Butler, who had 721 from 1990-2001. Martinez will almost certainly wind up as the Packers’ all-time top tackler – providing his contract is renewed at the end of this season.

I should add here that Blake’s critics are quick to bad-mouth his pass defense abilities. While he’s no cornerback, he does have 16 passes defended as a pro, along with two interceptions. In this regard, he can’t measure up – no one can – to the incomparable Luke Kuechly, who has an incredible 18 interceptions and 66 passes defended, though in a career more than twice as long as Blake’s.

We also saw that Pettine turned Blake loose on occasion last year as a QB blitzer. The results, five sacks, were excellent, and he’s had two more this year.

Without Blake. . .

Martinez critics should be warned: be careful what you wish for. If Blake goes elsewhere after this season – and you can bet he’ll be in demand – who’s going to pick up the slack? Compared to Blake’s 128 tackles to date, only two teammates have more than 50 stops: Adrian Amos, coming on strong of late, has 71 and Kevin King has 55.

In 2018, Blake had 78 more tackles than runner-up Jaire Alexander, and in 2017 he had 63 more tackles than Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. As to tackling running backs, Blake’s gotten some needed help this year: Za’Darius and Preston Smith have combined for 93 tackles so far – and each projects to having more than 56 on the year. Kenny King is steady: after two consecutive years with 55 tackles, he is projected to finish with 54 this season.

Interestingly, in his seven years here, Mike Daniels never had a 50-tackle season.

Blake is seldom injured. Even after he fractured his right hand in Week 5, he didn’t miss a game, and his play didn’t tail off significantly.

Blake is a smart guy. He’s worn the communication helmet since 2017. He’s been the “quarterback” of the defense for going on three years. He’s the guy who’s seen constantly adjusting the Packers’ linemen prior to the snap. It would not be easy to find a replacement for him.

Pro Football Focus

I consider Pro Football Focus to be a mostly reliable source when it comes to player ratings. I’m unable, however, to fathom how the folks at PFF can wind up rating Martinez so harshly. I only get PFF’s cheaper subscription, so I don’t see all of their analytical data, but if you go by PFF, Martinez should be fighting just to maintain a starting job on some NFL roster.

Even if you don’t have access to PFF data, it says right there in Wikipedia: “(Martinez) received an overall grade of 74.8 from Pro Football Focus, which ranked 17th among all qualifying linebackers in 2018.” But hey, that’s a big improvement over his rookie year, when Wikipedia reported: “He received an overall grade of 49.1 from Pro Football Focus, which ranked 68th among 88 qualifying linebackers.”

Has PFF ever tried to explain how they rate Martinez as a run-of-the-mill player, though he’s convincingly the league’s top tackler over the last three years? I’m willing to listen, with an open mind, to how they square such a seeming contradiction.

Until then, my eyes tell me Martinez is performing at a high level, so I’ll remain a big fan of the man from Stanford. And to all his critics, I can only issue a dire prediction: you’re gonna miss him when he’s gone!

Tags:
Rob Born

I’m with Matt: “You gotta make those chunk plays!”

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17 Comments

  1. PF4L December 12, 2019

    Plus, he’s the Packers nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award.
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    I don’t know what PFF’s deal with him is, maybe they want a player who is good in both coverage’s. They hacked him good this year though. He had a grade of 74.8 last season, now he’s fallen to 60. That’s the 2nd largest drop on this team, next to Bahktiari.
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    But Rob is right, as i wrote previously, if he doesn’t make those tackles, who does?
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    As far as Kenny King (pff grade 58.4), tackles for corners don’t impress me much, especially when a shove or running a player out of bounds counts as a tackle.

    Reply
  2. Mark Lowe December 12, 2019

    Seriously, he is the weakest link. PF4L that is his job! He is the easiest MLB run stuffer to block as far as I can tell and he has zero instinct to where the hole is going to be but it doesn’t matter because he’s blocked and not getting off. Most of his tackles come 5+ yards down the field. Sorry but he should not be resigned. P.S. Rob, go back to your paying job.

    Reply
    1. PF4L December 12, 2019

      He should not be resigned at any price? Maybe you’re right. It’s not like the Packers have been looking for middle linebackers for years.
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      He’s doesn’t impact the game or make plays like Kuechly or Wagner. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t an asset at the right price.

      Reply
  3. Robster December 12, 2019

    Did I misread or did they add a tackle to Blake’s total? I see he’s tied with Wagner at 129 for the year. Also, the guy project to have 54 tackles, about 1/3 of Blake’s projection, is Kenny Clark, not King.

    Reply
  4. Kato December 13, 2019

    This play is a summation of why there is frustration with Martinez. He was in perfect position to make this play for a short gain, but it turned into a longer run

    https://twitter.com/The_Green_Gold/status/1204815576776007680?s=09

    Reply
    1. Adam December 13, 2019

      That play has designed misdirection, with the WR (#13 – Kelvin Harmon) running an opposite sweep. It did exactly what it was supposed to and freeze the spy, in this case Martinez, for just a fraction of a second. Just long enough to allow Perterson to get a lane on the edge. It was good execution by them, and you could put just as much blame on BJ Goodsen for not getting off his blocker that gave AP the lane.

      I agree that he’s not the most athletic guy in the league, and threes a case to be made that he was still close enough on the play to make the tackle – he probably should have. But on the flip side of this, had that play been a fake bootleg with a pass back to Kelvin, the only people that would have been in position to stop it were Tramon and Martinez.

      Lot’s of shoulda, coulda, woulda’s,

      Reply
      1. Adam December 13, 2019

        *Derrius Guice – not AP

        Reply
  5. Zwoeger December 13, 2019

    I’m with Rob. I once even used the term martinezed. About that play. If you follow that in slow motion the only way he could stop that runner was trough that lane and then beIng twice as fast as anyone.

    Reply
  6. Stiggy December 13, 2019

    Good analysis rob but careful comparing marrinez to a 3-4 block eating defensive end in daniels.

    Linebacker by definition gets more tackles than anyone.

    I’m ok with the pack keeping Martinez in the 7mil Aav range tops. He going to exceed that thiugh.

    Reply
  7. PF4L December 13, 2019

    It’s somewhat amusing how a team is 10-3, 2nd seed in the NFC, but all we like to do is find things to bitch about.
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    We like to crown Gute for his signing of the Smith Bros. Z Smitty clearly being the better all around player. You want to bitch? Fine…it’s your freedom. But why do we bitch about people that work, that give all they have to give like Martinez? Why don’t i see anyone bitching about the bad draft picks, the bad free agent signings? Would we rather bitch about people who contribute in a positive way?
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    Better yet….why can’t people accept the fact that this is a learning/improvement season? Why can’t people enjoy the fact the team is 10-3? would we still be bitching if the team was 13-0?
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    Martinez is making 2 million this season, after having been 4,5,and $600 thousand the last 3 years, and he’s who we want to bitch about? For what he’s been paid, i’d call him a bargain. Lets bitch about someone who at least deserves it…..Aaron…where are you?

    Reply
  8. Dave Nieskoski December 13, 2019

    Martinez over-criticized, but from my amateur level observation, he often looks hesitant
    during plays. He sometimes reminds me of Clay Matthews in his later career, where
    he seemed comfortable just watching the play instead of committing his body to a
    spot on the field. I feel weird writing ‘committing his body’ as I find football too
    brutal for these men’s’ well-being, yet I continue to watch.

    Reply
  9. KILLER December 14, 2019

    I think he meets or exceeds his athleticism level. That said, he should not be mentioned along with Wagner, Kuechley, Kendricks, or about a dozen other inside linebackers.

    A tackle at his position is meaningless without context. He is left on the field on passing downs and really should not be out there. It gets him extra tackles but it does not help the defense. He makes tackles that anyone else playing his position without much tackle competition would also make. His tackles # are a product of the defensive style and his usage and not excellence on his part.

    I also watched a game where Martinez was credited with 14 tackles and I was curious. I found he made 4 solo tackles, 2 assisted tackles, and there were several plays where he jumped on the pile after other players already had the guy. There was just no way he got 14 actual tackles in that game let alone 10 solo as was claimed (yes, I heard closest player to someone running out of bounds gets the tackle and I looked at that also). I’m not sure who is assigning those tackle stats, what their vision problem is, or how much they are bribed and by who but there is something wrong.

    To put this completely in context, I hope the Packers will resign Martinez for lots and lots of money so they can keep this 22nd ranked defense fully intact.

    Reply
    1. PF4L December 14, 2019

      Just for clarification Lonely Boy…was that the same 22nd ranked defense that held Cousins to under 50% completions, the same one who picked him off…twice? The same one where his passer rating was 52.9 and his QBR was 4?…yes, four. The same defense that held the queens under 17 points? Keep enjoying the view looking up….to the 1st place Green Bay Packers.
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      When the Lonely Boy speaks…people should listen. Martinez has no business being out on that field on passing downs.
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      Not when you could be playing Ty Summers or Oren Burks.

      Reply
      1. Ferris December 14, 2019

        I skimmed the article I didn’t see anyone named Kendricks mentioned. Who is that?

        Reply
  10. Howard December 14, 2019

    I have said it for years and will say it again, you can not have a good defense if your safety(s) are making more tackles than your ILB(s). Prior to Martinez’s second year the last time the Packers had an ILB be top tackler over a safety was in 2013 (Hawk). In 2010 the Packers top two tacklers were Hawk and Bishop. That is the way a defense should be built.
    In the preseason of 2018 there was an article on this site about Martinez. I went into great detail, with stats, about why your ILB(s) need to be the top tacklers on your team, not safeties.
    With that said I do believe PFF is downgrading Martinez because of his pass defense and because he is not making as many negative (TFL/sacks/QB hits) plays this year as last. We all have to admit that Martinez can get sucked up by play action and then can’t get back in coverage like the top ILbs in the league can. Of the 16 passes defensed mentioned by Rob only one has been this year and it was against Washington, last week.
    To me Pettine has been playing vanilla defense most of the year. Last year Pettine would send ILBs, and DBs on blitzes. That does not mean Pettine would always send more than four rushers, but he would try to confuse the offense by sending different players and overload the O-line in areas. I haven’t seen as much of that tactic so far this year, thus drop in sacks this year. I keep waiting. That difference in play calling I believe has impacted the quantity of TFLs/QB hits/ sacks Martinez has produced this year vs last year. PFF tends to like splash plays. I anticipate Pettine will start showing more soon!!!!
    To me what the Packers need is another ILB to put along side Martinez, who can also tackle, but is better in coverage and is quicker going sideline to sideline. Maybe that is Burks or Summers, but they have not shown Pettine enough in practice yet to get the opportunity, and that says something, and it isn’t good.
    I think the Packers should try and keep Martinez and upgrade the other ILB position. I also do not believe Martinez should be a three down ILB. Try and get Martinez off the field in obvious passing downs. The problem as always with free agency is there are a lot of teams with money and it just takes one to make Martinez an offer the Packers can’t or won’t match.

    Reply
    1. PF4L December 14, 2019

      So what i’m reading here, if i may. Is that Martinez needs some support next to him. It would help immensely instead of Martinez having to cover sideline to sideline. Thank you.
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      That makes two of us that feel that way.

      Reply
      1. KzooPackFan December 14, 2019

        This ^^^^^ Keep Martinez. Upgrade the other ILB. That should be the goal.

        Reply

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