The decibel level in Sam Shields’ voice rarely flickers above a muttered, hushed tone.
The Green Bay Packers cornerback doesn’t possess the same philosophical insights as teammate Tramon Williams or the diplomatic resolve of a Charles Woodson. But inside a meeting room, he’s as respected as anyone on the roster.
Taking a quick scan of the 24-year-old, you wouldn’t know he usually tests higher than anyone in cornerback coach Joe Whitt’s classroom
or that he took rookies and first-year players like Micah Hyde and James Nixon under his wing in camp.
On the field, whatever jitters he felt during a turbulent sophomore season in 2011 appear to be a thing of the past.
Right now, Shields has the look of a soon-to-be unrestricted free agent reaching the peak of his powers and playing with a carefree attitude that could garner him the millions he never saw as an undrafted free agent out of Miami in 2010.
“I think he’s done an excellent job,” Whitt said. “He’s not a very talkative young man, but he’s leading by the tempo that he plays with. His tests are the best in the room. He leads by the way he takes notes and showing them, ‘This is the way you take notes.’ In every aspect of it, he doesn’t really talk
a lot, but I’ve been pleased with where he is.”
The Packers gave a green
light this offseason to allowing Shields and Williams to man their own sides of the field in coverage rather than utilizing Williams as a shutdown cornerback designated to follow around the opposing team’s best receiver.
Whitt cautioned there would be some exceptions as the season wore on and Sunday’s game against Cincinnati was one of them. However, it was Shields — not Williams — who was following stud receiver A.J. Green’s every move.
A game-ball recipient for his three pass deflections and two third-down stops against Washington two weeks ago, Shields limited the 6-foot-4 Green to only four second-half catches for 46 yards and a touchdown, marking only the fifth time over his past 20 games he’s been held under 50 receiving yards.
Along the way, Shields was responsible for the first turnover of the season for the Packers’ secondary when he flew in front of an Andy Dalton first-quarter pass intended for Green on a sideline comeback route.
The play was a thing of beauty as Shields stayed in front of the route, contorted his body slightly to the left as his momentum pulled him to the right to adjust to the ball and cause the first of what turned out to be four consecutive turnovers forced by the Packers’ defense.
Aaron Rodgers and the offense struggled on the ensuing series, but the play set the table for the Packers to crawl back after falling into a 14-0 hole in the opening minutes of the game.
“A.J. is an all-pro player. My thing was not letting him get the upfield ball,” Shields said. “He caught a couple and he got a touchdown on me, but things like that are going to happen. He’s a great receiver. He’s going to catch balls and he’s going to score. The key is forgetting it and keep playing.”
The decision to promote Shields into such an important role serves as a strong indication of how far he’s come following a disappointing 2011 season in which he missed eight tackles, and allowed 611 yards and six touchdowns on 46 receptions, according to Pro Football Focus.
Shields started slow last season before busting out for 23 tackles, a career-high 10 pass deflections and three interceptions. He missed six games due to a high-ankle sprain, but led the NFL in coverage snaps per reception (16.3).
led to Shields and his agent Drew Rosenhaus opting to sit out of the Packers’ voluntary organized team activity practices in hopes of signing a more lucrative deal than the one-year, $2.01 million one he received as a restricted free agent this offseason.
The Packers began discussions with Shields about a possible long-term deal this summer after he signed his second-round tender in June, but quickly turned their attention to extending fourth-year safety
Morgan Burnett on the eve of training camp.
If Shields keeps having performances like the one he had Sunday, he might be soon to follow.
“Sam’s made progress ... we felt good about him last year, we feel good about him this year,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He’s made some impact plays. You saw the one (Sunday), that was a really nice play he made on that interception.”
Shields is the lightest cornerback on the roster at 5-foot-11, 184 pounds, but he plays physical and has enough speed to match the likes of Green and other deep-field threats.
The key for Shields and the rest of the secondary has been eliminating big plays and excess yardage. He already has six pass deflections in three games, but Pro Football Focus also has docked him for allowing 17 catches for 310 yards and two touchdowns.
Most of that production came on the Packers’ secondary allowing San Francisco’s Anquan Boldin and Washington’s Pierre Garcon to put up big numbers.
“We have to go out there and make the plays,” Whitt said. “San Fran game, we played a good first half and then we let it go. That can’t happen. We have to play 60 minutes and that’s what we must do to beat a team we have to beat.”
Still, Shields is more of an answer than a question with his game-breaking ability being one of the key components of the Packers’ zone-blitz defense. It’s a secondary that has ranked in the top five in interceptions during each of Capers and Whitt’s four seasons together.
Shields and the secondary are in for another test as one of the NFL’s top receivers, Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, awaits them after this week’s bye.
The spotlight will continue to shine for Shields, who has often reiterated how he wants to remain a Packer. Over the coming months, he’ll get a chance to show he’s worthy of a contract in the ballpark of the four-year extension Williams signed in 2010 that averages $8.25 million per season.
If Shields can play up to those standards this season, he’ll know how he got there.
“It’s always confidence,” Shields said recently. “Confidence and knowing where you’re at on the field, knowing your help. Having that mindset of going out and saying, ‘This dude is not going to catch the ball.’ I go out there each and every play, and just have that in my mind.”