Cornerback Sam Shields during Green Bay Packers minicamp at Ray Nitschke Field on June 21, 2010. / File/Press-Gazette
Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid has looked at the preseason game tapes and seen undrafted rookie Sam Shields line up as the Green Bay Packers’ third cornerback in their nickel defense.
He looks to his own roster at a dangerous group of receivers in wideouts DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin, and tight end Brent Celek.
So is there any doubt where the Eagles plan to attack Sunday when the teams meet at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field in the regular-season opener?
“(Shields) understands how the league works,” Packers receiver Greg Jennings said. “He knows he has (cornerback) Tramon Williams on the other side, and nobody wants to pick on (Charles Woodson). So he’s the guy that’s left.
“The only way you can approach it is that’s more opportunities for (Shields) to make plays. As a receiver I shared that with him; they’re going to attack you, it’s up to you to make plays, you’ve got to show them, ‘I’m not the weakest link, so don’t throw my way just because you think (so).’”
Shields is one of two rookies starting in the Packers’ secondary, along with third-round draft pick Morgan Burnett. The Eagles probably will target Burnett as well, though he’s had the advantage of working as a starter from the first day he joined the team last spring, and is a little easier to protect at safety.
Shields, on the other hand, is more raw than most rookie cornerbacks because he didn’t play the position until his senior season at the University of Miami. That helped make him the surprise of the Packers’ training camp, because despite his brief time at the position, Shields kept make attention-grabbing plays, including several interceptions in practice and two more in the preseason games.
Shields was beaten on his share of plays in camp also, occasionally in bunches. But his playmaking convinced defensive coordinator Dom Capers to move him up from the bottom of the depth charts at the start of camp to the important No. 3 job after second-year pro Brandon Underwood injured his shoulder in the Packers’ Aug. 26 preseason game against Indianapolis. Underwood is unlikely to play this week.
As the No. 3 cornerback, Shields will play starter’s minutes — last year the Packers used their nickel package on almost 60 percent of their defensive snaps — and it’s a given he’ll have some bad plays Sunday, whether giving up catches for some first downs or touchdowns, or getting hit with a big penalty or two. Reid will try to get Jackson and Maclin matched against him as much as possible.
Shields’ charge will be not letting the bad plays break him mentally and inhibit him from making a key drive-ending play or two. Williams, who also entered the league as an undrafted rookie, went through a similar baptism when he became the Packers’ No. 3 corner in Week 14 in 2007, his first season on the 53-man roster after spending ’06 on the Packers’ practice squad.
“From what I saw of (Shields) in the preseason, he made plays,” Williams said. “The regular season is going to be a different thing, they’re going to find ways to attack. I can remember when I first played nickel, I made plays. When you’re young you’re still learning things and you’re going to give up some plays too, but throughout it all I still made plays.”
Shields and Burnett might have caught a break in facing an inexperienced starting quarterback, Kevin Kolb, rather than the man he replaced, 12-year pro Donovan McNabb. Kolb has only two career starts, both last season, though he served a three-year apprenticeship to McNabb to get ready for this season.
But if Kolb might not have a veteran’s nose for exploiting a rookie to the maximum, the Eagles still have a strong group of receivers.
Jackson is one of the NFL’s premier playmakers and tied an NFL record by scoring eight touchdowns of 50 yards or more last season and finished with 12 — nine receiving, one rushing and two on punt returns. Maclin caught 55 passes as a rookie last season, and Celek led the team in receptions with 76, including eight touchdowns.
When Shields plays in the nickel, he’ll normally line up as the left cornerback, with Woodson moving into the slot, where he can be a threat to both cover and blitz. The Eagles often line up No. 3 receiver Jason Avant in the slot, so Woodson will be on him, and Shields could see a good dose of Jackson and Maclin.
“My focus is to play ball, play my assignment, play fast, make some plays,” Shields said. “I can’t really think about, ‘Oh, they’re going to keep coming at me because I’m a rookie.’ I’m in there with a whole bunch of vets, so I’ve got to think like I’m a vet.”
Burnett will provide help in deep coverage and probably will match up some with Celek.
“I look forward to it,” Burnett said. “It’s been a dream of mine since I was young, it’s finally here now and I look forward to learning and being better from the good and the bad.”
Underwood looked like the front-runner for the No. 3 corner job until he got hurt, though he’d given up enough completions in preseason games that Shields at least was pushing for the job. Underwood could be a couple of weeks from returning, and if Shields holds up he has a chance to keep the job when Underwood returns. But Shields or Underwood would have to be a revelation to keep the job for long after long-time starter Al Harris is eligible to come off the physically unable to perform list after the sixth game.
When Harris is ready, the Packers probably will ease him back as the No. 3 cornerback, and decide later whether to start him or keep Williams there based on their play.
Either way, the Packers will have played probably seven or eight games before then.
“I don’t think (Shields) knows (what he’s in for) because he hasn’t played a real NFL game yet,” Williams said. “But he’ll figure it out sooner (rather) than later.”