There were 52 defensive backs selected in last year’s NFL draft, more than any other unit. Sam Shields wasn’t one of them.
But if there was a draft do-over today, Shields not only would be selected, he might well be a first-round pick. Combine Tramon Williams’ improvement this year with Shields’ meteoric rise from nowhere, and it’s an amazing development.
Shields probably outplayed three of the five corners taken in the first round during the regular season — Houston’s Kareem Jackson, the New York Jets’ Kyle Wilson and New Orleans’ Patrick Robinson — and he has played even better in the postseason. In Sunday’s NFC championship, Shields became only the fifth player since 1982 to intercept two passes and register a sack in a playoff game. One interception was a spectacular play; the other the game-clincher.
A year ago, when the Packers had to play Jarrett Bush as their nickel back in the playoffs, they gave up 51 points and allowed 375 yards passing in a one-and-done showing. In this year’s three games, they gave up a total of 51 points and an average of 213 yards passing.
On the flip side, the Packers were the ones abusing their opponents’ weak links in the secondary: Atlanta’s Chris Owens in the second game and Chicago’s starting left corner Tim Jennings on Sunday.
The Shields factor
That was another shrewd game plan by Dom Capers: Pulling Charlie Peprah in base and replacing him with Shields. That allowed Charles Woodson to lock up on a tight end or play on the edge. And it took Greg Olsen, the Bears’ tight end, out of the game.
At this point, Woodson probably matches up better on a tight end than a wide receiver. Plus, when he was on the edge, he was taking on lead blockers, and other guys were making the tackle. He had a heck of a game. Shields has virtually become an every-down player. And having two good corners like Williams and Shields allows the Packers to do more one-on-one stuff and blitz more. And they’re less vulnerable when they blitz.
If Capers had to run Bush out there, it’s a different ballgame. Shields gives Capers so much more flexibility. Capers doesn’t have to worry about covering home base first. In other words, he doesn’t have to figure out where the other team’s offense can hurt his defense before installing all his special stuff. If you’re scared of putting a corner in one-on-one coverage, that’s where you have to start in your weekly preparation. You leave that guy on an island, it can be six points.
Obviously, on defense, it all starts with Clay Matthews. But it’s the corners who have allowed Capers the flexibility each week to game plan to take away the other team’s strengths and not worry first about covering up his defense’s shortcomings.
Most teams have one good corner. Having two is a real luxury. And to have three has to be a coach’s wildest dream. Plus, without Shields, Capers wouldn’t have the flexibility to do what he does with Woodson. Against the Bears, Woodson was playing the role that Brandon Chillar played early in the year, and playing it better.
By blitzing Shields, Capers also added another wrinkle to his defense that Pittsburgh is going to have to prepare for. And the beauty is Shields is so fast, he doesn’t have to tip it off that he’s coming. When he shot that window on his sack, he closed ground so quickly, it was startling.
Inside pass rush
Cullen Jenkins had a whale of a game. So did B.J. Raji. It just shows what pressure up the gut can do to a quarterback. Raji has done it all year, and Jenkins is benefiting from that. He’s going against one-on-one blocking. Matthews draws a tackle, as well as help from a tight end or fullback; and, a lot of times, Raji gets the center and the guard. So the backside has one-on-one matchups.
Corey Williams and Jenkins had a pretty good thing going in 2006, but this might be the best inside pass rush tandem the Packers have ever had. Santa Dotson got pressure in the 1990s, but he was just one. Hall of Famer Henry Jordan was the best of all in the ’60s, but the other tackle was a stay-at-home guy.
Replacing the most durable quarterback in the history of the game was a tough act for Rodgers to follow. But anyone who thought Rodgers was made of glass can just look at the shot he took from Julius Peppers. Maturity, competitiveness, toughness shown in one play. And his tackle of Brian Urlacher on the interception might have been the biggest play of the game.
He was the unsung hero again. The Bears started five drives inside the 20. Special teams was the wild card for the Packers going into the game, but Masthay took Devin Hester right out of it. And let’s face it, the Bears can’t drive 85, 90 yards. When they have a long field in front of them, their offense isn’t capable of executing for that long.