Linebacker Blake Martinez was often called a "tackling machine" throughout his final three seasons in Green Bay. His 443 total tackles from 2017-2019 were the most in the NFL as he started all 48 regular season games during that span.
When the Giants signed Martinez to a multi-year deal last off-season, the team was hoping he would continue to serve as a consistent force in the middle. Fast forward nearly 10 months and the Giants couldn't be happier about the investment they made in the 27-year-old veteran.
Martinez started all 16 games this past season while barely leaving the field. He played on 97 percent of the team's defensive snaps, setting a career high with 1,062. The fifth-year pro finished the season with 151 total tackles (third in the NFL) to go with three sacks, nine tackles for losses, six quarterback hits, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one interception and five passes defensed. His 75.9 overall grade from Pro Football Focus was the seventh-highest among linebackers.
Despite his strong production, Martinez expressed his excitement about getting to work this off-season in order to improve his game.
"Overall season-wise, extremely happy with how I played," Martinez said after the season ended. "Always obviously wanting to get better. I'm going to focus on just improving on all aspects of my game this off-season. To make 152 tackles and 'XYZ' more plays for my team to help us win. Then overall, just excited for this group of guys and excited to get back to work for the 2021 season."
Martinez has good reason to look forward to the Fall, as the Giants' defense put up strong numbers in its first year under defensive coordinator Patrick Graham.
The defense finished ninth in points allowed (22.3) and 12th in yards allowed (349.3), a significant improvement from its NFL rankings the previous season. The unit was most impressive in the red zone, surrendering a touchdown on just 50.8 percent of opponents' trips inside the 20, the second-best mark in the league.
Now that the defense has had a full season in Graham's system, Martinez believes it can play even better.
"I think with every team, especially with having a new defensive coordinator, you have those kinds of little bumps in the road and things like that," the linebacker said. "But I think overall throughout the year, he did a really good job of getting us to understand it, understand what he's looking for. But like you said, the jump from year one to year two, it's going to be awesome to kind of find finite details and just understand even more what he's looking for, and be able to play maybe one or two steps quicker across the board as a group."
Despite some early-season blips, the defense began to pick up steam around the middle of the year. Beginning in Week 9, the Giants surrendered more than 20 points twice while going 5-3. Opponents averaged just 19.8 points per game over the final eight outings, which over a full season would have ranked as the fourth-best scoring defense in the league. With most of the depth chart expected to return, it's no wonder Martinez has high hopes.
"Very high potential of being a great group, just like we started showing throughout the later part of the season," Martinez said of the defense. "It's just an awesome group of guys that come to work every single day, and I know we're going to keep doing that. As long as we keep doing that, we're going to keep proving to ourselves and to everybody else that we can be a top defense in this league."
A lot has been made about the culture head coach Joe Judge has built within the organization. Judge has spoken about it at length throughout his first season with the Giants, and after Martinez spoke to reporters following the conclusion of the season, it is abundantly clear that the coach's message resonated with his players.
"The main thing is it's a group that just comes to work every day, no matter what situation it is," the linebacker said. "It's an amazing day, a bad day, an even day, raining, sunny, snow, just a group that's going to compete every single chance they get to be better individually, and then as a group. I think that's just been the great part of coming to work every day, that you know you have to bring that A game at every aspect, whether it's in the meeting room, the training room, the cafeteria, whatever it is. Everyone is talking ball, everyone is excited to go out there on the practice field and show what they've been working on to improve that given day."
It is because of this structure that Martinez is confident the Giants are close to being a winner again.
"Extremely close. I think Coach Judge hit it when he talked about it," Martinez insisted. "Just making and building that foundation of the type of culture we're going to have in this building for years to come as long as Coach Judge is our head coach, which I believe is going to be a long time. It's awesome to see. You look back at all the games we had this year, the close games, the little things here and there, just making sure we go into next season winning those situations, winning those crucial points in those games, to pull those close games out in 2021."
One reason for Martinez's optimistic view is the performance of rookie linebacker Tae Crowder (a.k.a. Mr. Irrelevant), the 255th and final pick in the 2020 draft. It took Crowder just a few weeks to prove to everyone that he was far from irrelevant.
In just his second start, Crowder finished behind Martinez for the second-most tackles on the team with 10 (six solo) against Washington in Week 6. More importantly, the rookie scored the decisive touchdown when he picked up a Kyle Allen fumble and returned it 43 yards. Then, he landed on injured reserve for several weeks because of a hamstring injury. Crowder returned after the bye and played over 50 percent of the defensive snaps in each of the final five games of the season.
"He's a great player," Martinez said about the rookie linebacker. "I actually told him, I was like 'you're probably one of the best rookies I've been around in this league.' Just work ethic-wise, intelligence, play skill, play ability. Just the aspect to be able to pick up things like he did, and also help me out there on the field as quickly as he did. He was one of the guys that I trusted out there to kind of calm me down if I ever had any moments of kind of need. It was really cool to see.
"I'm just excited for him to have that Year 1 to Year 2 jump, get stronger, faster, more understanding of offensive schemes. The sky is the limit for him, no matter Mr. Irrelevant or not, and I'm excited for years to come playing next to him."
With a full year of experience in Graham's defense now under their belts, Martinez and the whole Giants' defense have their sights set high for 2021 and beyond.
View photos of linebacker Blake Martinez in his first season with the Giants.