Last year, the Packers finished second in the NFL in total defense, but when it counted, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his players had no answers. The only stumbling block during the second half of the season was the Week 15 loss at Pittsburgh in which Ben Roethlisberger threw for a franchise-record 503 yards and the winning touchdown as time expired. In the wild-card playoff game, Aaron Rodgers put together one of the finest performances in postseason history, only to be one-upped by a flawless Kurt Warner, who threw more touchdown passes (five) than incompletions (four) in a 51-45 overtime shootout.
The problem was injuries. Pat Lee might have been the No. 4 corner but went on season-ending injured reserve before the start of the season. Veteran Will Blackmon went down in Week 4. And then, worst of all, veteran starter Al Harris suffered a devastating knee injury at midseason.
The Packers were fine without Harris, with Tramon Williams stepping into the lineup, but the domino effect was the death knell to the season. Whether it was the predictably unreliable Jarrett Bush, raw and immature rookie Brandon Underwood or midseason addition Josh Bell, the results were ugly against top-flight passing attacks.
So, naturally, general manager Ted Thompson ignored cornerback in free agency and the draft.
What in the name of Sam Hill was he thinking?
Turns out, the answer wasn't Sam Hill, but Sam Shields.
Shields played just one season of cornerback at Miami (Fla.) but is blessed with remarkable athleticism. He's arguably the fastest player in the league, based solely on 40-yard times. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt all along maintained that Shields was the most talented cornerback in the draft.
Shockingly, Shields' talent blossomed immediately under the leadership of Whitt and veteran Charles Woodson.
"We've all seen Sam when he came in at training camp," Capers told Packer Report on Friday. "He had some physical tools, we knew he was very fast. We put him out there in the opening game against the Eagles, and I think he's been growing ever since then, and so I think he's playing some of his best football now just like we've seen Tramon grow. You hope at this time of the year that guys have enough background in the system and enough confidence that they can go out and play their best, and I think both of those guys are playing at their best now."
Shields landed with the ideal team. Woodson is one of the smartest players in the NFL and Whitt is an up-and-coming coach and marvelous teacher. Shields was a standout from the first week of practice, and it took only three weeks for him to blow past holdovers Lee and Underwood on the depth chart. Woodson quickly took the talented rookie under his wing.
"He's like a big brother to me," the soft-spoken Shields said of Woodson.
Thrust into a prominent role from the get-go, Shields wouldn't allow himself to use his rookie status as a crutch — and Woodson wouldn't let him, either, frequently telling Shields to wear his "big-boy pads."
"Man, he's been great," Woodson said when asked by Packer Report during his Wednesday news conference. "I think you have a young guy who came in who really had no fear, came in with a ton of athletic ability. But he didn't have any fear. You know, he took the challenge of being an undrafted player and having an opportunity to come in and play for this team. He's taking coaching. He's a young guy that takes notes. You don't see a lot of young guys that come in take notes. You can see him, he's in watching film and those sort of things. He's done himself well in that department."
Unlike last season, when Roethlisberger and Warner dismantled Capers' defense with three- and four-receiver sets, Shields has stabilized the position. Last week against Atlanta, he was flagged for the first time all season and gave up five receptions as the Falcons targeted him 12 times, but only the pass interference resulted in long yards. In the playoff opener at Philadelphia, he was tested once — beautifully breaking up a deep route to standout Jeremy Maclin. In the regular season, he picked off two passes and had nine passes defensed.
With Shields' consistently strong play, Capers has been free to open the playbook. Not only has Capers not had to use a safety to give Shields help, but Shields' ability to play man-to-man means Capers can attack with any number of defenders, secure in the knowledge that Williams and Shields can handle the outside receivers by themselves. That will be hugely important on Sunday, with Chicago's three unheralded receivers, tight end Greg Olsen and running back Matt Forte providing Jay Cutler with numerous options.
"Your corners dictate how much you can do defensively," he said. "If you've got to always roll up and protect the corner, you cut (the defensive menu) down. So, Sam and Tramon outside and Charles inside, you know they give us great flexibility, whether we're playing first and second down or third or Okie (base) defense or any of our sub packages. They're a big factor in it. Yeah, Sam, has been great in terms of fitting in and being able to give us more flexibility in what we want to do."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.