GREEN BAY, Wis. – At some point during the Green Bay Packers’ most recent game, the Week 3 loss at Cincinnati, cornerback Sam Shields went to the coaches and asked to match up against the Bengals' star receiver, A.J. Green.
The way Shields has played, it didn’t take much to convince Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt to go along with the plan.
“I said, ‘You feel good about it?’” Whitt recalled on Friday. “He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Go ahead and match him.’ It really wasn’t our part doing it.”
By halftime, Shields already had intercepted a pass intended for Green. Playing one-on-one press man coverage, Shields read an out route and stepped in front of Green to pick off quarterback Andy Dalton’s pass, which was thrown too far inside.
Although Green caught a 20-yard touchdown pass against Shields in the third quarter, the coaches were pleased with Shields’ coverage of one of the premier receivers in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, Shields allowed Green to catch four passes for 46 yards and the one touchdown in seven targets.
That game may have signaled a changing of the guard at cornerback for the Packers.
They already had made one philosophical switch this season, when they decided to no longer line up Tramon Williams against the opposition’s best receiver game in and game out. Rather, Whitt and defensive coordinator Dom Capers were going to let Shields and Williams patrol their sides of the field.
Halfway through the third game, they went back to their old coverage plans, but with Shields, not Williams, as the lock-down defender.
“It means a lot,” Shields said. “It’s something that gave the coaches confidence in me.”
The Packers have carved out a new role for Williams, too. In the nickel package, he has moved inside to cover the slot receiver, a defensive role formerly held by Charles Woodson. But it means the Packers’ highest-paid cornerback (Williams will make $6.5 million this year in salary and bonuses) is no longer the cornerstone of their pass coverage.
Ever the consummate professional, Williams had nothing but praise for the 25-year-old Shields.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are capable of getting the job done,” Williams said. “If you’re asking me if I feel badly about it, no, because I know those guys will get the job done. It actually works better for the defense, and it shows the growth in the defense. My pride? I don’t have any pride behind it.”
Just because Shields has played well does not mean all is right with the Packers’ pass defense. Through Week 4, the Packers ranked 28th out of 32 teams in passing yards allowed per game.
And with perhaps the NFL’s most dangerous receiver, Calvin Johnson of the Detroit Lions, next up on the schedule, there’s reason to wonder if anyone on the Packers, including Shields, can slow him down.
“To say you’re going to just take one guy and match him up out there and take Calvin Johnson the whole day, you’ve got to mix it up because all these guys are too good,” Capers said. “Every week, you play against a guy like a Green or a Calvin Johnson. Those type of receivers, I don’t care what you do, if you do the same thing on them all the time, they’re going to get you some. They’re just too talented.”
It should help that the Packers will have starting safety Morgan Burnett for the first time this season. Burnett, who missed the first three games with a hamstring injury, would likely be the one Capers would use to double-team Johnson.
Williams, in his new slot position, is likely to see Johnson, too. Johnson has five of his 21 receptions this season from the slot position, according to Pro Football Focus.
But this could be another statement game for Shields, who is playing this season under the one-year, $2.023 million tender he signed as a restricted free agent. Shields’ agent, Drew Rosenhaus, had discussions with the Packers about a long-term deal over the summer. The way Shields has played so far, his price might have gone up since then.
“If I keep playing how I’ve been playing, I’ll just let my play speak for itself,” Shields said.