The Green Bay Packers would have lost regardless of whether Sam Shields was on the field Sunday during a demoralizing 38-8 drubbing at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals.
But if there was any question about the Pro Bowl cornerback’s value to the defense, it's becoming clear why the Packers forked over $39 million in a four-year contract with Shields after the 2013 season. Their defense has missed the sixth-year veteran dearly in the three games he has been sidelined this season.
That's not meant as an indictment of Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. The two rookies have played well this season and held their own in the last two games, which Shields missed because of the concussion he sustained against Dallas on Dec. 13.
It’s not just any cornerback the Packers are replacing, though. They’re going without one of their best defensive players. Before Shields left in the second quarter against the Cowboys, defensive coordinator Dom Capers had been matching him up more against top receivers.
Shields did an exemplary job holding Detroit's Calvin Johnson to three catches for 44 yards earlier this month and then picked off a pass intended for the Cowboys' Dez Bryant in the end zone. His tackling isn't always crisp, but his coverage had been air tight before the injury.
Unfortunately for the Packers, they were without Shields for their two biggest games of the season. A shoulder injury suffered during a 29-10 loss at Denver in Week 8 kept him out of a 37-29 loss to Carolina the next week and then he missed his second consecutive game Sunday because of the concussion.
“Sam’s been around here a long time, played a lot of football for us and played in a lot of big games,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Monday. “Obviously, you’d like to have all your veteran guys when you’re playing these games. So I’m not sure when Sam will be back, but when he is we’ll welcome him back because his experience in the big games I think will pay off.”
Without Shields, the Packers have relied on more zone coverages. It led to some heroics against Oakland, including Randall returning a Derek Carr interception for a touchdown, but it also created more opportunities for Carr and Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer to find holes in coverages.
The Packers missed Shields’ speed against the high-flying Cardinals, too. The secondary earned only one pass defensed on Palmer's 27 throws Sunday. The defense has given up eight passing plays of 20 or more yards in the past two weeks after allowing only eight combined in the five previous games.
With Shields' technique catching up to his speed, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt felt the 28-year-old veteran was closing in on shutdown status going into the season. His ability to handle top-flight receivers makes life easier for the rest of the secondary. Safeties rarely need to help him, and the young cornerbacks get to handle the lower-tier receivers.
What’s interesting about the NFC playoff race is the lack of star receivers. In fact, 32-year-old Larry Fitzgerald and Seattle’s Doug Baldwin are the only playoff-bound NFC receivers with more than 1,000 yards.
For all the issues the Packers have, they have to like their chances with Shields, Randall, Rollins and Casey Hayward matching up against any receiving corps of the NFC front-runners. After a slow start, Shields has displayed the skill and temperament to be a shutdown cornerback when needed.
“He gets upset when I don’t let him (match). He really does,” Whitt said recently. “He gets upset when we send help to him, but I have to explain to him that it helps the structure of the defense. But he’s played well this year. He’s played really well. He’s done everything I’ve asked him to do and I’m pleased with the way that he’s played. … He’s getting after people.”
Everyone knows what Shields is capable of, but it remains to be seen when he’ll be cleared by an independent neurologist to return. His absence leaves a significant hole on a team devoid of playmakers. It didn’t help that defensive tackle B.J. Raji also left with a concussion in Arizona.
After a remarkably healthy 2014 season, 2015 has served as a remainder of the game the Packers are playing. According to the injury reports they’ve submitted, the team has had 341 instances (114 missed, 227 limited) this season in which players’ actual or estimated practice participation has been affected compared to 263 a year ago (110 missed, 153 limited).
In addition to Raji and Shields, the Packers are navigating the final stretch of the season with a banged-up offensive line that has all five starters dealing with injuries. Left tackle David Bakhtiari missed Sunday’s loss to the Cardinals with an ankle injury, while right tackle Bryan Bulaga left in the second half with one of his own.
The Packers (10-5) need to get healthy quickly, especially because they will be playing in the wild-card round of the playoffs regardless of the outcome of Sunday’s NFC North title game against Minnesota (10-5).
“I’m not worried about confidence, we're playing for a division championship,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “We have some bruises, bumps and bruises and injury situations that we need to try to work out in a timely fashion this week so we make sure we're getting the right people, the right reps to get ready for this game.”
Shields' return would be a plus for a defense that probably will need to set the tone in the playoffs, given the offense’s struggles. While Green Bay’s defense is allowing its fewest points per game (20.2) since winning the Super Bowl in the 2010 season, the offense is on pace to score its fewest points since 2006 (379, 23.7 per game).
When Shields’ deal was finalized March 10, 2014, it was constructed in a way that allowed the Packers potentially to get out of the contract after two seasons if his play wasn’t up to par. His base salary skyrockets from $2.5 million to $8 million, giving him a $12.125 million cap number next season.
Shields has played well enough to keep himself on the books next year even if he doesn’t have Clay Matthews’ name recognition or Julius Peppers' Pro Bowls.
While defense certainly wasn’t the reason why the Packers were blown out of University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday, it may be the biggest determining factor of whether the team can win in the playoffs. Getting Shields back would be a major boost to the Packers' chances.