Coming off a shin/ankle injury that kept him out of six games, the third-year cornerback has come back with a vengeance, putting together arguably the best back-to-back games of his career.
Last week in an NFC North Division-clinching victory at Chicago, Shields did not allow a catch in four passes thrown his way. He was credited with three pass breakups – including one on a third-down play and one on fourth-down play in the end zone – and forced Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey into three offensive pass interference penalties.
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt has been surprised by how well Shields has bounced back after being out so long.
"I thought that he was hurt a little bit worse from looking at the film and everything," said Whitt. "Sam's a tough young man. I've said it many a time, his play last year was probably more my fault than anything because I didn't do a good enough job with him. He's answered the bell. He's had pressure put on him from day one, and before he got hurt, he was having a solid year. And after he came back even better because he knew that the other guys were playing at a high level."
Shields had an up-and-down 2011 season, and despite 13 starts over his first two years in the league, he was on the outside looking in for a starting spot in training camp. The Packers were taking a longer look at Jarrett Bush and Davon House for an outside cornerback spot instead. Bush eventually won the job but lasted less than one game. And House was developing into a starting-caliber NFL cornerback while Shields was out.
When Shields returned Dec. 9, the Packers figured to bring him along slowly, perhaps sharing possessions with House. But House gave up four catches in four targets against the Detroit Lions, including a touchdown to tight end Tony Scheffler on a pick play, and he missed a tackle that led to a first down. Shields then took over for good in the second quarter and played well, recording an interception and allowing just two catches (for 23 yards) in seven targets.
Asked whether Shields had to earn his spot back based on how House has played overall this season, Whitt responded Friday with a simple but firm, "Yes."
Shields played 50 snaps against the Bears. House, who had contributed on defense in each of the prior eight games, did not even see a single snap of defense.
The opposition's quarterback rating against Shields has dropped from 87.1 in 2011 to 67.8 in 2012, according to ProFootballFocus.com. In his rookie year in 2010, it was 89.2.
But perhaps most impressively, Shields has been a more willing tackler against the run and a better tackler overall. Based on PFF numbers again, he has averaged 11.5 tackles made per missed tackle this season vs. 4.9 last season, which was one of the worst marks in the league at his position.
"I think I took for granted that he was further along in his sense of understanding where he was," said Whitt, expanding on his earlier comments, "and didn't quite take into account that it was just his third year of playing defense and didn't do a good enough job of teaching him how to tackle, the approach, where your eyes should be, where your contact zones are on different type players. We really focused on that this training camp and the physicality of it. And he likes to tackle. He likes to hit. Watch how he plays. He just didn't know how to do it."
But, according to Whitt, he knows that now.
"No question," he said. "You watch how he plays from the very first game when he hit Frank Gore from San Fran on that third-and-1 to make a third-down stop. You look at that play, to how he fell on the hole on (the Bears' Matt) Forte (last week) and dinged himself a little bit, and I know he missed a tackle on the next play, but he's coming in there with a lot of energy and power and temperament to get guys down. And these are running backs we're talking about."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org