. . .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.
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.
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!