Sam Shields returned to a very different Green Bay Packers’ cornerback room at the start of the offseason program in April.
A few lockers down, Tramon Williams and Jarrett Bush's name placards no longer hung from nearby lockers. More than 20 years of NFL experience went out the door when the two veteran cornerbacks and Davon House all departed after the 2014 season.
Suddenly, the 26-year-old cornerback was the eldest player in the room. Five years after making the roster as an undrafted free agent, Shields was going to be the veteran to whom rookies Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunter would be turning.
“This year I had to learn to talk a little bit more,” Shields said. “Not too much because I’m not talkative, but just talking a little bit more and teaching a little bit more.”
Shields, mild in his temperament, knows he leads the most with his actions on the field. That’s the responsibility he inherited after agreeing to a four-year, $38.9 million contract in March 2014.
The Packers rewarded him with that contract after arguably his finest season in 2013 when he had a career-high 61 tackles and four interceptions in 14 starts. However, it wasn’t until last year that he made his first Pro Bowl appearance on the heels of a 40-tackle, two-pick season.
Like most of the Packers’ defense, Shields got off to a tough start to the 2015 season in Sunday’s 31-23 win over Chicago. Linebacker Clay Matthews saved the day with his 42-yard interception of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, but only after the defense gave up more than 400 yards of total offense.
Shields, who had trouble getting his footing at Soldier Field, fell down while trying to break up a fourth-quarter pass intended for Bears receiver Marquess Wilson, who then broke it for a 50-yard gain. Earlier, he missed a tackle on Chicago running back Matt Forte, was flagged for holding Alshon Jeffery and jumped off-sides on a field-goal block attempt.
There were positives, including breaking up an end-zone pass intended for Jeffery in single coverage. It’s the give and take of life in the NFL.
“That’s how it goes,” Shields said. “Cornerback, that’s a hard position. It goes back and forth. It’s one of the positions you have to forget about and keep moving. I know everybody saying I had a bad game, but I don’t think so. Catches here and there, that’s going to happen. It’s a long season. That’s the NFL. They have great players around. I just have to keep doing what I’ve been doing.”
Shields’ situation was a microcosm for the state of the Packers’ defense. Coordinator Dom Capers feels good about his Pro Bowl cornerback and the potential of the overall unit, but it remains a work in progress after a shaky preseason and rough opener against the Bears.
Pass and run defenses work hand-in-hand. Whether you’re tackling a ball carrier or receiver, the name of the game is limiting production and making plays. Packers coach Mike McCarthy counted “double-digit” missed tackles against the Bears, which went a long way in Chicago rushing for 189 yards.
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt attributed three to his group, which admittedly are still too many. Miss on a running back? It’s understandable when conceding 30-40 pounds in open field, but Whitt and Shields agreed that can’t happen against receivers. The problems that plagued the Packers weren’t shouldered by one specific player, though. It was a group effort.
The Packers feel like they have the personnel to be a difference-making defense. It comes down to individuals fulfilling their assignments and trusting their teammates. The end result of everything falling into line?
“We will play a better brand of defense than what we played in Chicago,” Whitt said. “If we don’t, we’re going to look like we did against Chicago, which is not what we’re capable of doing and that’s what’s disappointing to me because we’re not playing to our ability.
“If we didn’t have the players to do it or we didn’t have the scheme to do it, that’s different. We have it, so there’s no excuse for us not to play high-level ball and that’s everybody. Not Sam. Not anybody in particular. Everybody needs to do their job and we’ll play from there. That’s just what it is.”
The Packers’ secondary was without starting strong safety Morgan Burnett against the Bears, pushing nickel cornerback Micah Hyde to the back end and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix often dropping down into the box. The rookie Randall played well in the sub-packages, but not everything went as smoothly.
Clinton-Dix, who had two interceptions in the NFC title game, showed aggressiveness in his pursuit, but contributed to the team’s missed-tackle total due to bad angles, including on quarterback Jay Cutler’s 12-yard scramble on third-and-5 in the second quarter.
Those third-and-2-to-5 situations are the game within the game to Capers and often the difference in how well you contain an opposing offense. In the long-time coordinator’s estimation, you want to pull a 50-percent success rate in third-and-2-to-5 situations. The success rate should be around 80 percent when facing third-and-10 or more.
It comes down to stopping the run, limiting yards after catch and staying true to fundamentals. Rough start, but Capers doesn’t believe all hope is lost. He remembers giving up 141 rushing yards to former Cincinnati (and Green Bay) running back Cedric Benson in a 31-24 loss in Week 2 in 2009. The defense went onto set a franchise record for fewest rushing yards allowed.
After Week 1, the Packers rank 27th in total defense, 16th against the pass and 31st against the run. Those aren’t exactly numbers you want to take into Sunday’s showdown with Seattle, which features running back Marshawn Lynch, quarterback Russell Wilson and tight end Jimmy Graham, their newest weapon. Still, Capers sees hope.
“I feel like we just have to keep working at it and we’ll get the thing right,” Capers said. “We’ve done it around here in the past whether it’s gap control or guys being disciplined in their gap, tackling these good backs and getting them on the ground. Sunday night that’s going to be on the keys. We have to tackle this big back and get the second and third guy there with good leverage.”
The Packers know they can count on Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, but they need more playmakers to emerge. Capers sees Shields as one of those guys — a cornerback who plays tight coverage against the best receivers in the NFL.
Whitt said this offseason he views Shields as a guy on the precipice of becoming a top cornerback in the league. It’s his job this year to take the next step and the Packers are counting on it with Williams now in Cleveland and House in Jacksonville.
Like the rest of the defense, Shields is putting Chicago behind him and focusing on the task at hand.
“My thing is not giving up the deep balls,” said Shields, who joked he needs to get some new cleats. “There were some catches. It’s the NFL. They’re going to catch balls. My thing is I have to come in Monday like I did and made some corrections and I’ll go from there. I have Seattle this week. From last year, we over that. We’re ready to rock and roll.”
—firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.