GREEN BAY — In the middle of a crowded locker room after the Green Bay Packers’ win over the Chicago Bears on Thursday, cornerback Sam Shields saw a couple of reporters approaching and made a faux tackling move. Apparently, he’s taking this emphasis on tackling seriously.
“It was what we wanted, what the coaches were looking for,” Shields said. “We came together. Our main focus was getting off the field on third down.”
Sometimes all it takes is one play to restore a player’s confidence, and no one needed that more than Shields, the third-year pro. After a poor 2011 season, especially as a tackler, Shields’ playing time depended in large part on his ability to get physical.
Given a limited role on defense to start the season, it took only one week for Shields’ playing time to increase.
One play in the season opener against the San Francisco 49ers might have done the trick. It came on a third-and-2 swing pass to 49ers running back Frank Gore, who caught the ball in the left flat and headed up the field toward the first-down marker. Shields came up from his right cornerback position and tackled Gore short of the first down line, which a replay challenge confirmed.
At the time, it seemed like a potential momentum-turning play because it gave the Packers the ball back with nine minutes left and a chance to tie the game, but it went for naught because Aaron Rodgers threw an interception on the next play and Gore scored on a 23-yard touchdown run on the play after that.
Still, it was a confidence booster for Shields, who said he needed that “just for myself because I knew that’s what I needed to work on.”
More importantly, it gave defensive coordinator Dom Capers the confidence to expand Shields’ role for the Bears game. Shields went from playing only in the sub packages against the 49ers to the starting right cornerback against the Bears. It was perhaps all Capers needed to see to make the switch from Jarrett Bush to Shields. Bush didn’t play a single snap on defense against the Bears, while Shields played 60 of 63 snaps.
“(That tackle was) a confidence boost for me, yes, seeing him get that guy down because that guy’s hard to get down,” Capers said. “He’s one of the better runners in the league. But I think (Shields) is playing a more physical brand of football than what he has. I think he has put an emphasis on it, and he knows we’ve emphasized it, and I think he’s done a nice job.”
With fellow starting cornerback Tramon Williams assigned to cover Brandon Marshall — and at times Capers rolled a safety toward Marshall — Shields was left mostly on his own to cover rookie receiver Alshon Jeffrey, who had three catches for 80 yards and a touchdown in the Bears’ Week 1 win over Indianapolis. Shields didn’t allow a single completion and his coverage was so solid that quarterback Jay Cutler threw at him only once, on a pass to Devin Hester. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Shields only has been targeted twice in the first two games, allowing just one completion for 6 yards.
“We felt good about some of the things that Sam did in the 49er game and after looking at game (Thursday) night, I thought Sam had one of his best games since he’s been here,” Capers said. “Obviously, we matched up and had Tramon going with Marshall, and most of the time he had some help whether it be inside, outside or over the top. So Sam was on his own a lot of times on Jeffrey, and I thought he really did a nice job.”
Halfway through training camp, it looked like playing time might be scarce for Shields, who served as the third cornerback in the nickel package for most of 2010 and 2011. He missed two weeks this preseason because of an elbow injury and had slipped down the depth chart.
Still, Shields may have to fight for playing time. Davon House, who was on his way to winning the right cornerback spot until he injured his shoulder in the preseason opener, could be available for Monday’s game at Seattle. Also, rookie Casey Hayward, who moved into the dime package in the Bears’ game, played well in his first extended action.
“Who knows what will happen,” Shields said. “Like I’ve said, I just have to keep grinding and do what I’ve got to do.”