GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The nickname might not stick. Oh, how Jake Ryan hopes it will not stick.
“Jeez,” Ryan muttered under his breath -- with an eye roll for good measure -- as it was brought up by reporters at midweek. Then, in resignation, “Whatever you guys want to do with it, go for it.”
Yes, the Green Bay Packers are starting two young fourth-round picks at inside linebacker this season: Ryan, a second-year man from Michigan, and Blake Martinez, a rookie from Stanford. Yes, their first names happen to rhyme. And yes, in a workplace where nicknames aren’t always the most original -- from cornerback Quinten Rollins’ (“Q”) to tight end Jared Cook (“Cookie”) to veteran linebacker Julius Peppers (“Pep”) -- Ryan and Martinez’s teammates have actually put some thought into theirs.
“It’s ‘Shake ‘n’ Bake,’” Martinez offered, somewhat sheepishly. “‘Shake ‘n’ Bake,’ ‘Jake ‘n’ Blake’ ... we’ll see.”
OK, so the reference to Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s characters in “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” might not resonate the way the team’s quarterback/resident nickname enthusiast Aaron Rodgers' monikers for former punter Tim Masthay (“The Ginger Wolverine”) and No. 3 quarterback Joe Callahan (“Big Tom Callahan’s Son,” for Chris Farley’s classic character in “Tommy Boy”) did.
But however you’d like to refer to Ryan and Martinez, this much is clear through two games: They make a pretty good tandem at a position that has been problematic for the Packers in recent seasons. They’re 1-2 in tackles entering Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field -- Ryan with 17, Martinez with 15 -- and have played well enough that edge rusher Clay Matthews has been able to stay outside after being stuck inside by necessity for the past season and a half.
“I thought Jake and Blake made improvement from Week 1 to Week 2, so I like the way those guys are progressing. It's all about getting better,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Jake's clearly made big steps from last year.”
Ryan started the Packers’ final five regular-season games and both playoff games last year. His first start came on Dec. 3 at Detroit -- the Packers’ famous “Hail Mary” victory over the Lions -- and he finished with 57 tackles and a fumble recovery (including playoffs).
“I feel more comfortable with the defense. Last year, I knew it, but I didn’t know what everyone else was doing on the defense,” Ryan said. “There were some parts to it that I knew, but now I know every one. I know the rotations, I know everything.”
So far, the Packers have mostly played Martinez and Ryan inside in their base and nickel defenses while using Joe Thomas in their dime unit. They’ve helped the Packers to the No. 1 spot in the NFL in run defense (78 total rushing yards allowed, 1.6 per attempt) and have been solid in pass coverage, too. Martinez also has the ultra-important role of defensive signal-caller, wearing the helmet headset through which defensive coordinator Dom Capers communicates.
“At first, it was [a matter of] earning the trust of all the guys [who were saying], ‘We’re going to have a rookie telling us what to do?’ And then as the weeks went on, they got more comfortable and I got more comfortable with them,” said Martinez, who began working with the No. 1 defense immediately after the draft this spring, in part due to injuries at the position.
“I think that kind of gave me the confidence and the understanding that, ‘I’ve got to take this seriously, and I’ve got to not only know what I’m doing but what everyone else is doing.’ And once I showed them that, they kind of just said, ‘Hey, go run with it, and we’ll listen to you.’”
The fact that both Ryan and Martinez have a firm grasp on the defensive scheme has allayed some of Capers’ concerns about having two youngsters in his starting lineup -- something that would have made him uncomfortable earlier in his coaching career.
“It’s like a lot of things in this league: You adapt to what’s here and now,” Capers said. “Yes, probably 15 years ago, it would have made [me] nervous. But I like where both of those guys are. They’re both very conscientious, they both prepare well.
“They’re like all young guys, they’re going to make some mistakes. But they normally don’t end up repeating the same mistake because they’ve had a chance then to see it and work on it and go back to work. They’re both focused guys. You feel like they’re guys who can handle it.”