GREEN BAY – In the end, it didn’t change the outcome of the game. But it might have altered the course of third-year cornerback Sam Shields’ Green Bay Packers career.
The Packers had just pulled to within 23-15 last Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers on Randall Cobb’s punt return for a touchdown and the ensuing two-point conversion with 11 minutes 16 seconds to play. They needed a three-and-out stop from their defense to get the ball back to quarterback Aaron Rodgers and their potent offense.
On third-and-2 from the 49ers’ 28-yard line, quarterback Alex Smith dumped a short pass into the left flat to running back Frank Gore. With a head of steam, Gore had 2 yards – and Shields – between him and a first down to keep the drive going. But Shields closed quickly and aggressively – something he didn’t do last season, when at the end of the year he lost his gig as the team’s No. 3 cornerback because of his tackling deficiencies – and squared up perfectly on Gore, drilling him short of the first down.
The tackle held up to coach Jim Harbaugh’s replay challenge, and the 49ers were forced to punt.
It ended up not mattering then – Rodgers threw an interception on the Packers’ first offensive play after the punt, and Gore scored on a 23-yard run on the play after that – but it mattered in a huge way to Shields. Here was a guy whose tackling had been a huge issue, and he’s just made a huge tackle in a huge situation.
“I think that was a defining play for him,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said last week. “Gore is a top-level back and (Shields) went cage-to-cage with him. He didn’t go low. He went cage-to-cage and stopped him for less than what they needed to get the first down.
“That showed that, hey, he’s willing to stick his nose up there. He’s not going to be 100 percent on tackles — nobody is — but you’ve got to be willing to put your cage in him and I think that play showed that he is willing to put his cage in there against a very, very good running back. I was pleased with seeing that more than I was anything else.”
So pleased that when the Packers played the Chicago Bears on Thursday night, Shields had leapfrogged over Jarrett Bush on the depth chart and got the starting nod opposite Tramon Williams as the No. 2 cornerback. Against San Francisco, Bush had held that distinction in the base defense while Shields played as the third cornerback in the nickel and dime defenses.
“We felt like good about some of the things that Sam did in the 49er game. And after looking at the game (Thursday) night, I thought Sam had one of his best games since he’s been here,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Friday, which would indicate Shields will still be the starter when the Packers play their next game, Sept. 24 at Seattle.
“Obviously we matched up, we had Tramon (Williams) going with (Brandon) Marshall. And most of the time he had some help whether it be inside, outside or over the top help. So Sam was on his own a lot of times on (Alshon) Jeffery. And I thought he really did a nice job.”
Asked if the tackle on Gore gave Shields confidence, Capers replied with a chuckle, "(It was) a confidence boost for me, yes. Seeing him get that guy down (was important) because that guy’s hard to get down. He’s one of the better runners in the league. But I think he’s playing a more physical brand of football than what he has. I think he has put an emphasis on it and he knows we’ve emphasized it. And I think he’s done a nice job."
On Thursday night, Shields played 60 of a possible 63 snaps against the Bears. He only came off the field when the Packers went to their run-stuffing four-lineman, four-linebacker “Hippo” package.
“It felt great,” Shields said after doing his part to help the Packers defense hold the Bears to just 168 net yards of offense in a 23-10 victory. “There’s some things I have to correct, but as far as being physical, I felt good, I felt that I did that a lot this game, put my head on the ball, and I felt great.”
It had been Bush who had replaced Shields on early downs in the team’s NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the New York Giants because of Shields’ shoddy tackling and opened training camp ahead of him on the depth chart. Then, after a couple of poor days of practice at the start of camp and an elbow injury, Shields had tumbled further down the pecking order, behind second-year corner Davon House, who’d shown total willingness to be physical, and rookie second-round pick Casey Hayward.
During the offseason, Whitt had made his position crystal clear on Shields – and any of his other cornerbacks who seemed timid about being physical. But it was mostly directed at Shields, who had been Whitt’s pet project but also had been the NFL’s fourth-worst tackler among cornerbacks last season according to ProFootballFocus.com’s tackling rankings.
“We’re going to hit. We’re going to put our face on people, and that’s that whole group, and they understand that, too. That’s been clear,” Whitt said then, before instituting a series of tackling drills in practice for his cornerbacks, including one he called the “Come To Jesus” drill. “We will get that solved. We will tackle. You don’t have to worry about that. Or we won’t be out there, one of the two. The guys who are going to tackle will be out there. The guys who won’t will watch.”
When he dropped down the depth chart, Shields seemed remarkably calm, saying it wasn’t time to panic about his role on the team and vowing to give Whitt what he was looking for in terms of tackling. And while Shields had an interception in each of the final two preseason games, it was his willingness to get physical that mattered more.
“No panic, just being patient and keep working,” Shields explained Thursday night. “That was my main focus – not to get discouraged, keep doing what I’d been doing, and being patient.”
Shields’ patience paid off, and the Packers’ patience with him is paying off, too. After a stellar 2010 season as an undrafted rookie free agent from Miami (Fla.), he had regressed appreciably last year in coverage, too. He appears to have refocused on that aspect of his game, while his tackling is starting to come more naturally – especially for a guy who spent his first three college seasons playing wide receiver.
“I don’t want excuses, but that’s what it is. I played offense my whole life,” Shields said. “The difference, I think, is just knowing how to do it. You know, during this training camp, that’s what we worked on. We had a little bit of time to work on it, but when we did, we worked on it. And the days when we didn’t work on it (in tackling-specific drills), he always wanted us to be where the ball was, acting like we were about to tackle. I think that helped me out.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.