The Green Bay Packers run defense was a big problem for the team in 2019. Anybody who watched the NFC Championship Game against the 49ers saw the Packers inability to stop Raheem Mostert and the rest of the San Francisco runners and knows that it was the biggest difference in the game.
This offseason, the Packers signed free agent inside linebacker Christian Kirksey to address this issue. Kirksey will replace the departed Blake Martinez who lacked the speed to be a consistently effective run stuffer in Mike Pettine’s defensive system. Critics explained that too many of Martinez’s tackles came five or more yards downfield and after the offense had already made a successful gain on the play.
But Kirksey has more speed than Martinez did and when he’s been healthy, he’s been able to make a lot of tackles. In his last two full seasons, Kirksey was very productive. He made 138 total tackles in 2017 including 3.5 sacks, six quarterback hits and six tackles for loss. The previous season, he was credited with a career-high 148 tackles, 2.5 sacks, seven quarterback hits and 11 tackles for loss.
Injuries have cost Kirksey dearly over the past two seasons. In 2018, he played in just seven games before a hamstring injury ended his year. In 2019, a chest injury limited him to just two games played before he was forced to land on the injured reserved.
Kirksey knows he faces a challenge to regain his reputation as a football player. “For those who may have slept on me or said, ‘Oh, he’s injury prone,’ or ‘He’s not the same player he used to be,’ I’m here to prove them wrong and prove to myself that I’ve still got what it takes to be one of the best linebackers in the league,” Kirksey told Packers.com.
“I want to get back to playing great football,” Kirksey added. “Re-establishing myself and getting my name back out there and letting people know Christian Kirksey is back, Christian Kirksey is a great linebacker in this league. That’s what I’m shooting for.”
One advantage Kirksey has heading into this season is his familiarity with Pettine’s defense. He played under Pettine in Cleveland in 2014 and 2015, his first two seasons in the NFL. This will help Kirksey after an offseason that had no in-person minicamps or OTAs and what is expected to be a shortened preseason and training camp.
Pettine is excited about coaching Kirksey again. “I just think it was a great signing for us for a lot of reasons,” Pettine said. “We’re not just bringing a really good player into the room. This is a guy who has great leadership ability. He already has a head start on learning the system.”
Despite not yet seeing Kirksey on the field, head coach Matt LaFleur has been impressed with what he’s seen from his new inside linebacker in virtual meetings and classroom settings. “Really, really fortunate to get a guy, especially considering the circumstances of this offseason, to get a guy that’s been in this system in Christian Kirksey,” LaFleur told reporters during a recent conference call. “I’ve been super impressed with him. You can tell he’s a pro. He knows what’s going on already, and we’ve only been meeting for a couple of weeks.”
In addition to having a bit more speed than Martinez, Kirksey also looks at the position a little differently than his predecessor did. “Just looking at the playbook, I think there are plays out there for the Mike [linebacker],” Kirksey said. “Blake [Martinez] maybe just wanted to do a little bit more because he feels like he’s capable of fitting in other ways. As for me, I enjoy the position. Playing in it my first two years, seeing guys like Karlos Dansby [in that] role, I saw the plays that he made.”
Kirksey also wants to do more than is expected of him. “Sometimes, it’s the NFL, you’ve got to go make plays you might not be expected to make,” he explained. “You have to take chances sometimes…I’m going and understanding that it’s my job, it’s what they want me to do, so I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”
Staying healthy and being effective against the run and keys to Kirksey’s success in 2020 and for the Green Bay defense to improve in the areas it struggled with the most a year ago.
Kirksey realizes how important this season is for his career and he’s eager to get started. “I’m excited that I’m feeling good. My pec is back. I got cut and got picked up by a great team. It couldn’t have happened in a better way, almost feels like a Cinderella story.”
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