GREEN BAY – The 22-year-old rookie, sprawled out in front of his locker with his iPad and constantly peppering Aaron Rodgers with questions, is no more.
Three games into his fourth NFL season, Blake Martinez now stands as the primary cog in the Packers’ defense and the recipient of all but 15 of the 1,273 defensive play calls Mike Pettine has relayed as the team’s defensive coordinator.
As a whole, the defense is off to its best statistical start in years. The Packers lead the league in takeaways (eight), are second in points allowed (35) and tied for third in sacks (12).
Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith have been a revelation for the pass rush, Jaire Alexander has flashed star potential, and Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry have fortified the defensive front.
The link making all ends meet is Martinez, whose 35 straight starts are currently the most on Green Bay’s defense. Through three games, Martinez has notched the fourth-most tackles in the league (32, according to nfl.com) and a sack, often the only true inside linebacker on the field.
“He’s a field general. That’s why he’s able to have the success that he does,” said rookie linebacker Ty Summers. “He makes it look effortless. I’m watching him like, ‘Oh, it looks easy.’ And then I try to go out there and do the same thing for the first time and I’m like, ‘OK, there’s a little that goes into this’ because he’s done it.
“He knows what’s going to happen in front of him, behind him. He’s able to do his job to perfection.”
Martinez graduated to an every-down role in 2017. Since then, he’s had back-to-back seasons with 144 tackles, racked up seven sacks, an interception and forced fumble.
The 6-foot-2, 237-pound linebacker’s reliability and availability have been critical at a position with several moving parts in the box over the past year. In only three games, he’s already played alongside B.J. Goodson (acquired via trade on Sept. 3), and safeties Raven Greene and Adrian Amos.
This, one year after Martinez rotated alongside Oren Burks, Antonio Morrison, Jermaine Whitehead, Josh Jones, Ibraheim Campbell and Eddie Pleasant to navigate an injury-riddled 2018 campaign for Green Bay.
Displeased with how his own season unfolded, Martinez went back to his roots this past offseason. Returning home to Arizona to train, the Packers’ starting inside linebacker reported back for the start of April’s offseason program seven pounds heavier despite dropping 3½ percent body fat.
Whether it was Martinez’s offseason work, a season spent in Pettine’s defense or just the maturation as a defensive veteran, teammates have noticed the linebacker playing a step or two faster this season.
In Sunday’s 27-16 win over the Broncos, Martinez had two tackles for loss among his 12 total. At the end of the first half, he stuffed Denver running back Royce Freeman for a 5-yard loss off a swing pass to set up a quick three-and-out.
“He’s playing even faster, stronger,” defensive tackle Kenny Clark said. “If he’s not getting blocked, he’s running through and he’s reacting quick on the snap. If he is, he’s getting off blocks and he’s still making plays. These last three games, he’s been playing really well.”
Martinez feels the difference has been a combination of his offseason work and having more than 1,000 snaps of experience operating within Pettine’s scheme.
After Kirk Olivadotti was hired as the Packers’ new inside linebackers coach, Martinez sat down with his new position coach during OTAs and reviewed the film from last year. The two isolated on things the fourth-year linebacker could “clean up” in both the run and pass game.
Since Pettine was hired last year, Martinez has been a quiet rock for the defense. A highly regarded communicator, Martinez has also been effective in executing the blitz packages Pettine likes to incorporate on third downs.
“For me, it’s just do my job every single play and when the plays come to me, I need to make them. That’s my M.O.,” Martinez said. “I just want to keep doing that and keep getting better quicker, play a lot faster than I did last year. It’s just keep that progressing. I think I can play quicker. I can play faster. I can recognize things quicker. I can understand formations. I can get us into certain things quicker. Just trying to keep that going.”
A short week like this is challenging for Martinez, who lined up for 73 snaps against Denver on Sunday. Martinez feels like the plan for this week, which included walkthroughs Tuesday in lieu of practice, will go a long way in making sure the defense is as fresh as possible Thursday night against Philadelphia.
The rest is on him to get his body right, whether it’s taking advantage of the additional treatment options at team facilities or making sure to stretch and watch additional film at home.
Regardless of whether it’s a short week or normal seven-day schedule, the Packers’ locker room knows Martinez is ready to play every time he takes the field. As the defense looks to build on its strong start, Martinez quietly stands his post at the core of the foundation Pettine has put in place.
“OTAs he came back bigger and stronger, of course, but all the off-field stuff aside, how he’s playing football right now … you can tell he’s comfortable,” Clark said. “His tackling, how quick he’s lining us up and getting everything situated with backfield sets and what he sees and how he’s talking. He just knows what’s going on.
“That’s the stuff you appreciate about him because you know he cares about the game.”