Tackle Could Be 'Defining Play'

Throughout the offseason, Sam Shields was asked about his tackling. Could he tackle? Did he want to tackle? When asked about his tackling on Wednesday, after his big stop of Frank Gore, Shields couldn't hide his smile and the coaches couldn't hide their optimism.

One play can change a season.

Maybe even a career.

Randall Cobb's punt return for a touchdown got the Green Bay Packers back into the game against San Francisco last week. On third-and-2 on the ensuing possession, 49ers quarterback Alex Smith dumped the ball in the flat to running back Frank Gore. The only player standing between Gore and a first down was Sam Shields.

Gore was selected to his third Pro Bowl last season after his fifth 1,000-yard rushing season and sixth consecutive season of at least 1,300 yards from the scrimmage. At 5-foot-9 and 215 pounds, Gore isn't tackled by one defender very often.

As the Packers' third cornerback for most of his first two seasons in the league, Shields was essentially the defense's 12th starter. However, in Week 17 against Detroit and the playoff game against the Giants, and continuing through the offseason, preseason and into the San Francisco game, Shields found himself behind Jarrett Bush on the depth chart. The former collegiate receiver was demoted because he was a bad tackler — both physically and mentally.

So, it looked like a mismatch as Gore turned upfield and headed toward the first-down marker. Instead, Shields converged, delivered a hard hit and stopped Gore about a half-yard short of the marker to force a punt.

Throughout the offseason and training camp, reporters asked Shields about his tackling. They questioned if he knew how to do it. Worse, they questioned if he had the stomach to do it. So, it only seemed fair to ask Shields about his tackling after his stop gave the Packers a chance to tie the game.

"That's one of them," Shields said with a wide grin on Wednesday. "That was a good thing. Most important, we got off the field because it was a third down. That was a plus for the defense. I gained a little trust that I can tackle. I've got to continue to do it."

When the Packers host the Bears on Thursday night, it will be exactly seven weeks since training camp opened. Bush, Shields and rookie Casey Hayward have taken countless hundreds of snaps in the battle to be an every-down player at cornerback. The Packers went with a situational rotation of Bush and Shields against the 49ers, just like they did against the Lions and Giants last season.

Is it possible one play in a loss could shake up the depth chart?

"I think that was a defining play for him," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt told Packer Report on Wednesday. "Gore is a top-level back and he went cage to cage with him. He didn't go low. He went cage to cage and stopped him for less than what they needed to get the first down. That showed that, hey, he's willing to stick his nose up there. He's not going to be 100 percent on tackles — nobody is — but you've got to be willing to put your cage in him and I think that play showed that he is willing to put his cage in there against a very, very good running back. I was pleased with seeing that more than I was anything else."

The coaches needed to see Shields tackle. Shields, for that matter, needed to see himself tackle after making that his offseason and training camp emphasis.

"Oh, yeah, just for myself," he said. "I knew that that's what I needed to work on. Just doing that, I was like, ‘Oh, (shoot)!' I was just happy about it."

According to ProFootballFocus.com's tackling rankings, Shields was the fourth-worst tackler in the NFL among cornerbacks last season.

Whitt and the coaches made it clear that Shields simply wouldn't be handed his old job back this summer. After a terrible first few days of camp, Shields was coming on strong before injuring an elbow one night at training camp. That sidelined him for the first two preseason games. During the two preseason games that he did play in, Shields wasn't given the Gore-like one-on-one opportunity to stop a running back. So, as the regular season began, Whitt wasn't sure if Shields' offseason dedication had paid any dividends.

"I know he's been trying to play more aggressively, but trying and actually doing are two different things," Whitt said. "To actually see him do it in a game, under the lights, when it mattered, on a down that was a big-time play and gave us a chance to take the ball and (tie the game), that meant a lot."

Enough to change a season and career? Enough to move Shields back into the starting lineup as he enters the final year of his rookie contract and with restricted free agency on the horizon?

"I don't know. I hope so," Shields said. "Like I said, I've got to keep grinding and do what I've got to do. Whatever decision they come up with, I'm ready to rock and roll."

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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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