Considered a position of weakness for the Packers before the season, the inside linebacker unit took a step forward in 2017.
And by that I mean Stanford product Blake Martinez, brought the unit forward to respectability by having a season defined by sound tackling. The 3-4 defense, however, requires two inside linebackers on the field in the base and nickel defenses.
Notable from this season: the Packers would often put safeties Morgan Burnett and Josh Jones down in the box to provide flexibility and play-making that Jake Ryan and Joe Thomas often couldn’t provide. The numbers support Blake Martinez being the guy the Packers leaned on at the position.
2017 stats: 95 solo tackles, 144 combined, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 interception
In his second year as a pro, Martinez solidified himself as the primary ILB on the Packers’ defense. Martinez averaged 61.4 snaps per game — 93% of the team’s total defensive snaps — compared to Ryan’s 31.7 per game and Thomas’ 6.7 per game. And not only did he play heavily, he excelled.
He tied for the league lead in combined tackles (144) and tied for second in solo tackles (96). Kenny Clark (who helped Martinez eat up tackles with how he redirected running lanes) has some competition for top prospect from the Packers’ 2016 draft class.
It will be interesting to see how Martinez performs in new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense. Pettine has some experience with talented inside linebackers coaching the likes of Bart Scott and David Harris, while even turning Kiko Alonso into a valuable trade asset.
2017 stats: 52 solo tackles, 81 combined, 1 forced fumble, 2 fumble recoveries
While Jake Ryan saw some success against the run, he struggled against the pass and this has led to his reduction in playing time.
The former fourth-round pick out of Michigan, had a 2017 season that was statistically similar to that of 2016, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. But at least he’s consistent. His continued pass coverage issues are part of what prompted the Packers to experiment with Burnett and Jones in linebacker positions. They wanted to be faster.
Ryan must improve in coverage if he wants his play time to increase. I don’t see that occurring because, according to this “expert” analysis, it’s been an issue for years.
He doesn’t have to cover receivers, but he should work on his running back coverage where he’d be most utilized. The NFC is stacked with good pass catching backs (Todd Gurley III, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, Christian McCaffrey, Tarik Cohen) and more will continue to pop up as running backs find new ways to contribute to pass heavy offenses.
2017 stats: 6 solo tackles, 14 combined tackles, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
It was a forgetful season for the third-year Thomas. He played in only 12 games due to a lingering ankle injury and the utilization of the safeties at ILB contributed to Thomas’ infrequent playing time.
If he can return to his 2016 form, where he had 70 combined tackles, he could find himself a safe spot again on the final roster next season.
Josh Jones and Morgan Burnett
Jones 2017 stats: 60 solo tackles, 71 combined, 2 sacks, 1 intercpetion
Burnett 2017 stats: 48 solo tackles, 68 combined, 1 forced fumble
Both safeties saw significant playing time at the inside linebacker position after the Packers introduced the Nitro package into their defensive scheme. The scheme made the defense a little on the smaller side, but it allowed them to be quicker and have an extra coverage man on the field.
Burnett had a solid year despite missing four games, but it was Jones who really put his mark on the defense in earlier games. Against the Cincinnati Bengals in late September, the rookie out of N.C. State exploded for 12 combined tackles and two huge sacks.
There’s a chance, if the Packers like what they saw from Jones, that they let Burnett pursue other opportunities in free agency. Especially, if Pettine wants to play with a more traditional two inside linebacker defense given how unique his blitz schemes can be. Stay tuned for a more thorough breakdown of these two players when we address the safeties later this week.
Overall Grade: B-
This is a solid grade for a unit that had question marks before the season but, honestly, this grade is being propped up by Martinez. He’s the kid in that ILB classroom doing the majority of the work on a group project while the others contribute sparingly.
A lot of blame gets heaped on the secondary for coverage problems, but the linebacker corps also contributes to that issue. Martinez taking another step forward and perhaps a draft acquisition can get this unit into the A-range.