While the game ended on Aaron Rodgers' fumble, the premature conclusion to the season fell squarely on a Packers secondary that saw Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner throw five touchdown passes compared to four incompletions.
Eyebrows were raised when general manager Ted Thompson declined to add a veteran cornerback in free agency or a rookie through the draft. Somewhat surprisingly, however, the early returns after almost two weeks of training camp suggest the Packers' secondary is well-positioned to provide a stern test to a schedule full of top-flight passers.
Even if veteran cornerback Al Harris is unable to play early in the season or simply has lost it due to age (35) and injury (two torn knee ligaments, among other things), cornerback potentially will go from weakness to strength.
Under the worst-case scenario that Harris is finished, Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams are the obvious starters. Third-year pro Pat Lee and second-year player Brandon Underwood are competing to be the all-important third corner — a position that's on the field for between 60 percent and 65 percent of snaps most games — with the loser being the fourth.
"They're neck and neck," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt told Packer Report on Thursday. "Actually, Pat's probably made more impactful plays. Brandon's probably covered a little better. Neither one of them has done anything to really go above the other one. The thing that I'm most pleased with both of them is neither have given up explosives, really. We're not giving up balls down the field, and that's my No. 1 concern."
Lee's bugaboo has been injuries, with the 2008 second-rounder playing sparingly on defense in five games as a rookie and missing all of 2009 after getting injured on a preseason kickoff return. While both seasons ended with him on injured reserve with knee injuries, neither was serious enough to require surgery.
CB Pat Lee with Joe Whitt
Bill Huber/Packer Report
Lee, who had two nice pass breakups during Thursday night's practice, packs a well-built 196 pounds on his 6-foot frame, giving him the type of physical presence the team prefers in its corners.
"I'm doing very well, getting everything down, staying healthy," Lee said. "That's the main key right there, staying healthy, because they know I can go out there and play for them. The main thing is just staying healthy. I'm trying to show them I can still play since I've been out for basically almost two years. It's time to go out there and show them what I can do."
Thrust into action late last season due to injuries to Harris, Lee and Will Blackmon, Underwood struggled — especially in the playoff game. Underwood stands 6-foot-1 but plays bigger with his long arms, is clearly athletic enough, and has shown good ball skills.
Throughout camp, Underwood and Lee have rotated in as the third corner or with the starters when Woodson gets the day off.
"They have to decide that by their play," Whitt said on who has the upper hand. "The competition's been very good. I've been pleased with both of them. I'm going to allow them to decide. I told them, ‘Don't make me be the one to decide. With your play, you dictate who's going to be three, who's going to be four.'"
Meanwhile, an interesting battle is shaping up further down the depth chart because of the surprising play of undrafted rookie Sam Shields. Shields burst onto the scene with his big-time interception in the scrimmage and has kept it up during practices this week. At this rate, it seems almost impossible that the Packers could release him and sign him to the practice squad. That means Shields and Jarrett Bush could be fighting for the last roster spot in the defensive backfield. Bush is one of the core players on special teams while Shields was voted Miami's special teams player of the year as a junior.
Shields' cover skills have been a revelation. He was a part-time starter at wide receiver for his first three seasons at Miami before being moved to corner as a senior. He started 10 games but had no interceptions and just two breakups.
While Shields' shaky hands make him far too big a risk to return kicks, he has taken well to the coaching of Whitt, who has ample history with offense-to-defense players.
"I had to make the same transition, playing receiver (at Auburn) and coaching receivers at The Citadel to moving and coaching corners at Louisville and having to learn it at its rawest form," Whitt said. "The way I learned it is the way I teach it to those guys that made the transition. Kerry (Rhodes) was up in the NFL, Antoine Harris is up with the Eagles, William Gay is with Pittsburgh and now Sam is making the transition."
Shields has good size at a sturdy 5-foot-11 and very well could be the fastest player in the league. Unlike the stereotypical skill player from Miami, Shields is understated, saying that he's just trying to make the "coaches proud" so he can earn a roster spot.
Whitt and defensive coordinator Dom Capers have commented on Shields' study skills. Whitt's gone so far as to call Shields the most talented cornerback on the team and has said that if Shields had played cornerback for all four seasons at Miami, he would have been a first-round pick rather than undrafted.
"I've been very pleased," Whitt said. "Sam has the skill-set. He's a very talented young man. He's very businesslike. I love his approach. Now, by no means is he where he needs to be but he's on pace. Once he figures it out, he's going to be a very good player in this league — I mean a very good player."
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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.