Kirksey Could Add Right ‘Stuff’ to Run Defense

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Blake Martinez was a tackling machine during his four seasons with the Green Bay Packers.

A fourth-round pick in 2016, Martinez piled up 512 tackles during that span, second only to perennial Pro Bowler Bobby Wagner. The knock on Martinez was that too many of his tackles came too far down the field. The stats back up that contention.

STATS has a stat called stuffs, which is defined as a tackle at or behind the line of scrimmage vs. the run. These are the tackles that put the offense behind the chains and help create favorable third downs for the defense.

While Martinez was second in tackles the past four seasons, he was only 31st with 41 stuffs. For context, Wagner was No. 1 with 597 tackles and No. 3 with 66 stuffs. Luke Kuechly was No. 3 with 501 tackles and No. 1 with 72 stuffs.

After Martinez was exploited by San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game, the Packers let him sign with the New York Giants in free agency and replaced him with Christian Kirksey.

In 2016 and 2017 with the Cleveland Browns, Kirksey was one of the most productive linebackers in the NFL. He had 281 tackles during that span, a figure that trailed only Wagner. Between those seasons, he signed a four-year extension worth $38 million. Kirksey, however, played in only seven games in 2018 and two games in 2019. When the Browns released him to get out of the remainder of his contract, the Packers pounced.

“We’re very excited about the signing,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who was Kirksey’s head coach in Cleveland in 2014 and 2015, said last month. “Just going through the medical part of it and talking to our people, they didn’t think it was anything that was long term. Obviously, that’s a concern when you see the amount of time that he’s missed but, overall, I just think it was a great signing for us for a lot of reasons. We’re not just bringing a really good player into the room, I mean, this is a guy who has great leadership ability. Certainly, it’s a risk when you look at it, but it was a risk that we were more than willing to take.”

Here’s why. Over the past four seasons, Martinez played 61 of a potential 64 games while the injuries limited Kirksey to only 41. The tale of the tape:

Kirksey was 32nd with 340 tackles and 24th with 44 stuffs. On a per-game basis, Kirksey averaged 8.29 tackles and 1.07 stuffs. Martinez averaged 8.39 tackles and 0.67 stuffs. Or, put another way, 12.1 percent of Kirksey’s tackles were stuffs compared to 8.0 percent for Martinez.

According to Pro Football Reference, Kirksey’s tackles on all running plays the past four seasons came after a gain of 3.4 yards compared to 4.1 for Martinez.

“I just want to lead by example and show some of the younger guys that we have to hold each other accountable,” he said in a recent Zoom call. “If you’re going to be in this gap, stay in this gap. If we want you to be over here, I expect you to be over there. That's what it all boils down to when it comes to stopping the run. Hold your teammates accountable and you have to do your job, so I just want to come in and be that vocal guy, be that guy to lead by example. Stopping the run is all attitude. I'm looking forward to it and it's going to be a lot of fun.”

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