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Dougherty: Raven Greene's injury opens door for rookie linebacker Kamal Martin to make an impact

Pete Dougherty   | Packers News
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GREEN BAY - An ankle injury knocked Donald Driver out of Super Bowl XLV in the second quarter.

A friend of mine who works for an NFL team insists that helped the Green Bay Packers beat the Pittsburgh Steelers that day because it forced their coaching staff to play Jordy Nelson.

By that point in their careers – Nelson in his third season, Driver age 35 – Nelson was the better player, but Driver always played more. With the title on the line, Nelson came up big (nine catches for 140 yards).

The lesson? Sometimes losing a player can help a team because his replacement ends up being better.

That’s pertinent to the Packers right now, because they just lost a solid defensive player to a shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve: Raven Greene.

The Packers are better with Greene than without him. Nobody here is saying otherwise. He’s their best hybrid safety-linebacker, has played his best football recently and is coming off a game in which he blitzed well against the Philadelphia Eagles.

But Greene’s injury opens the door for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to find out just what he has in rookie linebacker Kamal Martin

Pettine has played six defensive backs (and only one true inside linebacker) for the large majority of snaps since he became the Packers’ coordinator in 2018. He did it his first two years out of necessity – inside linebacker was his weakest position group, so it was hard to justify putting two of them out there in nickel. He has continued to do the same this year because he considers Greene one of his best 11 players.

But based on the little we’ve seen of Martin so far – Martin has played in only six games because of an ankle injury and a stint on the COVID-19 list – there’s a real possibility he’s one of the best 11. My early read is he’s the best inside linebacker prospect to come through here in the last decade or more.

Pettine has lived and died playing mostly dime, and there’s been as much dying as living. Rushing stats don’t always reveal much, but the Packers rank No. 27 in yards allowed per carry (4.6), and anyone who has watched all their games knows their run defense has been just as vulnerable as it was last year.

That would be fine if they were getting a lot of stops, but they rank in the middle of the pack (No. 15) in scoring defense and No. 22 in defensive passer rating, which are the two most telling of the conventional defense stats.

And that run defense has cost them games. Among others, Philadelphia and San Francisco last year, and Minnesota and Indianapolis this season.

There are recent signs Pettine might be comfortable playing more true nickel, with Martin and Christian Kirksey at inside linebacker, rather than Kirksey and Greene or any other safety. Last week against Philadelphia, eight of Martin’s 16 snaps came against three wide receivers, a grouping Pettine normally would have defended in dime. But four of those were after Jalen Hurts came in at quarterback, so Pettine probably was less concerned about the pass against a rookie who is as much a runner as a passer.

With Greene out, it seems a given Martin will play more even against three receivers. The other options are replacing Greene with Will Redmond or one of two rookies, seventh-round pick Vernon Scott or undrafted Henry Black. Especially on early downs, it’s hard to see how Martin isn’t the best option until he proves differently.

“In a lot of situations I’d prefer to play with two linebackers,” Pettine said Thursday. “But at the same time you’re weighing that with how you are in pass coverage versus defending the run, and also where you stand with, ‘Hey, we want to get our best 11 players on the field, we’re going to find a way to get that combination out there.’

“For a stretch of time there was only one linebacker that we felt was in that group compared relative to the other players, whether that was an extra safety or even an extra lineman or outside backer getting into the (five-man front) stuff. We’re feeling much more confident with that (inside linebacker) group now.”

Greene’s injury comes at a time when the Packers are about to face some good running backs.

This week it’s Detroit Lions rookie D’Andre Swift, an early second-round pick (No. 35 overall). He has only 70 carries (4.7-yard average), but a scout I talked to recently thinks Swift is on his way to becoming a high-level back.

Next week, it will be Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey, who is as good a run-catch threat as there is in the league. He was a first-team all-pro last season, and though he has hardly played this year because of injuries (ankle, shoulder and quad), he’s back in the lineup and has 374 total yards in three games.

Then the week after, the Packers’ run defense will face the ultimate test, Tennessee's Derrick Henry, a punishing 247-pounder who leads the league in rushing (1,317 yards).

Offenses have tried to exploit the Packers’ run defense by coming in three-receiver sets knowing Pettine was likely to match with dime (six defensive backs). Then, almost regardless of down and distance, they run the ball against a defense overmatched against the run. While Greene is a tough player and game tackler, he’s still only 197 pounds. He has to go around blockers and can’t stand them up, and he gets runners to the ground but can’t stop them cold. The 240-pound Martin can.

Now, Martin is a rookie, and he’s going to make rookie mistakes. On the first play of the game last week – the Eagles opened with two tight ends – Martin shot a gap but was out of control and missed the tackle on Miles Sanders in the backfield.

But there’s a lot to like about his game. He plays downhill, has some snap in his body and adds a physical element at linebacker the Packers’ defense has lacked for years.

There’s always the chance he’s not ready for prime time, or that he’ll give up as much as he adds. But there’s only one way to find out, and at this point what better option do the Packers have?

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