The Giants have been devoid of reliable middle linebacker play for nearly a decade until the 2020 offseason when they signed Blake Martinez from the Green Bay Packers. Martinez, who was coming off three consecutive 140+ tackle seasons, wasn’t valued as highly as other linebackers across the NFL.
The Stanford product operated in two separate defensive systems with the Packers: Dom Capers and Mike Pettine; while productive, the middle linebacker was still undervalued, in my opinion, probably because he wasn’t the best man covering linebacker. Nevertheless, the Giants signed him to a three-year, $30.75 million contract with $19 million guaranteed.
The deal received some heat and was criticized by national pundits, but it was one of the best things the Giants could have done. Martinez thrived in Patrick Graham’s system and routinely put himself into optimal positions to force stops. He was such an upgrade over Alec Ogletree, who underwhelmed after Dave Gettleman traded for him from the Rams upon receiving the general manager job.
Martinez was tied for third in the league in stops with Alexander Johnson of the Broncos. Only the Texans’ Zach Cunningham and the Bears’ Roquan Smith had more (STOPS are a PFF stat that measures a negative offensive play).
Martinez’s ability to execute his assignments within the predominant zone coverage defense that the Giants ran was superb. Here’s this edition of the Good, the Great, and the Ugly from Blake Martinez.
(Blake Martinez is No. 54)
The Good: Forces Turnovers
Martinez does such a great job putting himself into an advantageous position to make a play on the football. This ability can translate into valuable turnovers and game swinging, opportunities for a team to establish a lead or maintain one, especially with an offense that struggled like the 2020 Giants.
The Giants, when dropping into zone coverage, typically shade their middle hook defenders towards the passing strength, which is to the right side of the screen on this play.
Martinez does a good job keeping his eyes focused on the quarterback in this zone drop defense; he has two threats: Rob Gronkowski (No. 87) and Ronald Jones III (No. 27).
Martinez watches Brady look at Jones III, and then he reacts downhill. The throw could be better, and Jones III tries to make more of the play, but Martinez punches the football out of the running back’s hands, creating a valuable turnover in a close contest.
Here’s a similar type of play with Martinez punching at the football, only this time, it’s in pursuit against Antonio Gibson (No. 24). Martinez originally aligns off the back-side of the 6-technique Leonard Williams (No. 99).
He gets underneath the in route of Logan Thomas (No. 82) before reacting to the pass, chasing Gibson to the sideline, and coming around the rookie’s body to force the football out. The Giants didn’t recover the fumble, but these plays are still of the utmost importance.
This play isn’t as impressive because J.D. McKissic (No. 41) falls to the deck, but Martinez still matches his route, steps up, and has the concentration to haul in a low pass. He read the eyes of Alex Smith (No. 11) and reacted with good timing to put himself into the position to earn a takeaway.
Watch the eyes of Martinez on this play as he attacks the inside slant; he is just watching Smith’s eyes and waiting for his reaction.
Once Smith hits his back foot, Martinez abandons the outside flow matches the receiver's route, and can almost snag another interception against the Washington Football Team.
The ball barely touches the ground, but he nearly forced another turnover. His eyes are so quick to process, and he’s very disciplined in general.
The Great: Instincts/Eyes
It would be very easy to just say his tackling is the “Great” part of the article, but I wanted to get a bit more specific. Martinez routinely plays an excellent game of Cat & Mouse with the running back while filling his responsibility or forcing the running back into adjacent defenders.
At the three-second mark specifically, you can see Martinez’s eyes still focused on Ezekiel Elliot (No. 21) as he is stacking and shedding a lineman─something he does excellently.
If there was an excellent part of this piece, that would be it. He gets his hands inside, sinks that center of gravity while flashing his eyes through all the traffic to locate Elliot as he attempts to find the B-Gap.
There are countless plays like these in Martinez’s tape; he shifts stacked upon the motion against this counter-trey rushing play─something I’m sure Martinez has seen quite a bit in practice. Martinez steps with the running back and sees the two pulling blockers.
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Watch how he reacts to the double-down block on Austin Johnson (No. 98), signifying the designed hole of the run play. Kyler Fackrell (No. 51) squeezes, Jabrill Peppers (No. 21) fills to take on the second puller, and Martinez comes in to meet the linebacker in the hole for a STOP.
The eyes, reactionary quickness, and ability to put himself into the desired position to force a negative play are Martinez's embodiment as a run defender.
Here’s another counter run from an I-Formation set against the 49ers. The play heavily sells the outside run before the fullback and half-back adjust to the counter.
Martinez’s eyes help him in this play. He adjusts his path, scrapes over the top of both Dexter Lawrence (No. 97) and Oshane Ximines (No. 53) to squeeze inside of a block to make the tackle. Martinez is making Peppers' job easier by filling responsibilities that other linebackers would miss.
Martinez sees right through this Rams’ blocker who climbs almost unabated; he’s watching the linebacker and not overreacting to the flow of the offensive line, which is important on these stretch plays that create backside-cut attempts.
Martinez watches Williams drive the linemen towards the play-side, effectively creating a solid cut-back lane in the A-Gap. Martinez is patient, doesn’t over pursue, and fills to stop the run against the Rams whale going low and making a good strong tackle.
Against one of the best left tackles in football, Trent Williams (No. 71), Martinez is able to see the run play, diagnose, react, and then put himself ahead of Williams so he can’t execute a proper DEUCE climb.
Martinez sees the back-side guard pull to kick out, and then he fills the B-Gap, knowing that the path of the running back was heading in that direction─Key & Diagnosing ability is beautiful from Martinez.
Martinez's patience and the scraping over trash ability are on display here against the Baltimore Ravens. He is a bit tentative to over pursue toward the running back’s path because of the double team on Lawrence, which is a good thing─that cut-back lane is insane.
Once the running back commits, he positions himself into the optimal spot to make a play on the ball carrier. There could be dozens of clips like this of Martinez scraping, flowing, or filling against the run. He’s an exceptional linebacker, and the Giants haven’t had a player like this in a very long time.
The Ugly: Questions About Man Coverage
A lot of the noise around Martinez’s inability to cover was masked by Graham’s scheme and the zone-heavy approach that allowed Martinez to use his eyes to impact opposing offenses.
The problem with Martinez in man coverage is that the eyes are eliminated, and raw athletic ability becomes a bit more paramount.
Man coverage requires the focus on the covering defender to be with the receiver; the defender reacts to every move and is, to an extent, a bit unaware about the quarterback’s intentions unless they’re reading the body language of the receiver.
So, theoretically, the more man coverage, the less use of Martinez’s excellent processing.
Martinez ran man concepts on 110 snaps in 2020--the Giants were one of the teams with the least amount of man coverage--and, at times, the Giants liked to employ Martinez in a five-man pressure package on third and intermediate with man coverage on the backend. In the 110 snaps, Martinez allowed only eight catches on 12 targets, according to Pro Football Focus.
These are pretty solid stats for Martinez, but many of his coverage assignments were near the line of scrimmage due to man-match principles that Graham had on specific play calls.
There were contingency plans in the defense that would disallow Martinez, and other defenders, from carrying receivers deep, so it wasn’t often that Martinez was in a MEG situation covering an athletic tight end up the seam in a Cover-0 play.
The best way to extract the most value out of Martinez isn’t to put him into positions that may expose the lesser attributes of his game.
Good coaches don’t put their players into these situations often, so Martinez’s lack of high upside man coverage ability is tempered due to good coaching, scheme, and teammates around Martinez in the secondary.
I don’t have huge concerns about Martinez’s abilities in coverage. What I do know, after watching Martinez within Graham’s system last year, is the important nature Martinez brings to the entire defense. He’s a very valuable piece to what the Giants want to do, and he’s worth every single cent of that contract he earned.
More "Good, Great & Ugly" Breakdowns
WR Kelvin Benjamin | RB Devontae Booker | RB Corey Clement | OLB Lorenzo Carter | CB Isaac Yiadom | TE Kaden Smith | WR Kenny Golladay | TE Levine Toilolo | Edge Ifeadi Odenigbo | DT Danny Shelton | OL Zach Fulton | CB Adoree' Jackson | TE Evan Engram | S Jabrill Peppers | S Xavier McKinney | ILB Reggie Ragland | WR John Ross | TE Kyle Rudolph | OLB Oshane Ximines | LB Carter Coughlin | IDL Dexter Lawrence II | WR Darius Slayton | LB Cam Brown | DL Leonard Williams | OL Will Hernandez | IDL Austin Johnson | IDL B.J. Hill | WR Sterling Shepard
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