Go ahead and throw the ball at Sam Shields.
He’s fine with it.
So is Joe Whitt. So is Dom Capers.
Early in the season, that wasn’t the case. The Green Bay Packers’ second-year cornerback hardly resembled the standout rookie from a year ago. His technique looked unrefined, and he was giving up yards and points.
Whitt, his position coach, and Capers, his defensive coordinator, weren’t getting the kind of production they expected.
At the midway point of the season, teams were completing passes against Shields at a rate of 61 percent, according to STATS. And when they did, they were getting an average of 15.3 yards per play. He was responsible for two touchdowns in the first eight games.
Why was Shields struggling after such a promising rookie season?
“Who knows?” Capers said. “I didn’t see anything to indicate those kinds of things in training camp or anything. Sometimes, it’s matchups, who you’re going against and just kind of working your way into where you’ve got a good feel for what you’ve got to get done.”
If it seems like Shields’ game has turned around of late, that’s because it has. In the last five games, teams haven’t had anywhere near the kind of success working against Shields they did in the first half of the season. He has allowed just eight completions over the last five games, and the percentage of times targeted that he has allowed a completion during that stretch has dropped to 47 percent, according to STATS. Those eight completions have averaged 13.6 yards. However, he has allowed two more touchdowns, one on Nov. 20 against Tampa Bay and one two weeks ago against the New York Giants.
“He’s playing better,” said Whitt, who coaches the Packers’ cornerbacks. “He started off slow this year, and some of that was on me. I did a poor job of getting him prepared. But he’s done a nice job of playing these past couple of weeks, of leveraging routes and playing stuff that a lot of people don’t see, but just playing solid football. His technique has really tightened up.”
That was on display with game-changing plays in each of the last two games. In Sunday’s blowout of Oakland, Shields broke up a deep post for Darrius Heyward-Bey on a third-down play late in the first quarter. Playing man coverage on the outside, Shields played his outside leverage perfectly. When quarterback Carson Palmer delivered a strike 21 yards down field, Shields slid inside, stuck his right hand in and knocked the ball away. At that point, it was a 14-0 game, and a completion would have gotten the Raiders close to scoring position.
Earlier in the season, he might not have made that play.
“I think it was more just stuff technique-wise,” Shields said. “I think I’ve played well throughout the season but the last couple of games, it was more of the technique things that I needed to work on.”
Shields ended the game against the Raiders with his third interception of the season.
The previous week, the Giants tried a home-run play in the fourth quarter. From their 13-yard line, quarterback Eli Manning threw one up for Hakeem Nicks on a go route down the right sideline. Shields ran with him stride for stride and 30 yards down the field, knocked the ball away with his left hand. The Giants, who trailed by one point at the time, never got that drive going and were forced to punt.
Later in that game, Shields gave up the game-tying touchdown, a 2-yard fade to Nicks, with 58 seconds left, but Whitt didn’t completely fault Shields for that play. The Giants are known for throwing fades to the back pylon of the end zone — Nicks caught one of those on Charles Woodson earlier in the game — so Shields was playing for the same type of throw but instead Manning threw to Nicks’ back shoulder.
As for the touchdown he allowed against the Buccaneers — a 9-yard slant to Mike Williams — Whitt said that was a play Shields will learn from. One of the Packers’ rules in that coverage is take away the slant before the fade.
“Once again that comes from, I’ve got to do a better job of making him understand no matter what happens, we want the ball to go to a certain place,” Whitt said.
If anyone needed a year in the Packers’ offseason program, it was Shields. He went undrafted out of the University of Miami because he had played only one college season as a cornerback. Previously, the speedster played receiver. But the lockout robbed Whitt of the opportunity to mold a young, but raw player.
“That’s one of the things I was really looking forward to, but we didn’t get it, and I’m not going to make any excuses,” Whitt said. “But he played high-level football toward the end of last year, and I think he’s right on pace to hopefully do it again.”
Still, his slip in play was surprising, especially considering the way Shields ended last season. He played his best game of the year against Chicago in the NFC championship game, when he had a sack, a forced fumble and two interceptions, including one with 37 seconds left that clinched the Super Bowl berth.
“What he did in the Chicago game, the way he played, the confidence and the swagger he played with in that game, was unmatched,” Whitt said. “So, hopefully that’s where we can get him back to.”
Whitt said he threw too much at Shields too soon this season.
“He’s still a second-year corner, and I tried to treat him a little more like a guy who’s been at the position longer,” Whitt said. “That’s on me. I dialed it back a little bit, and it’s made a difference.”
Despite Shields’ improvement, the Packers remain stuck near the bottom of the league in passing defense. For the ninth straight week, they rank 31st out of 32 teams in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game. But with Shields’ play improving, Tramon Williams seemingly over his early-season shoulder injury and Woodson still able to create turnovers, Capers and Whitt don’t seem as concerned about their pass defense as they were halfway through the season.
“I feel good about my three, I really do,” Whitt said. “I know everybody’s talking about yards, and I don’t really care about that. I care about points. Let’s get the points down. Let’s get turnovers. Let’s play high-level defense. People are going to get yards on us because they’re throwing it so much. Let’s just not give up explosive plays anymore, and hopefully we’ve got that corrected.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @RobDemovsky.