Green Bay Packers: A.J. Green

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.”

[+] EnlargeSam Shields
John Grieshop/Getty ImagesPackers cornerback Sam Shields wanted to cover A.J. Green in Week 3, and he made good by intercepting a pass in front of him.
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.

Packers' defense does its part

September, 22, 2013
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CINCINNATI – Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb called it “hands down one of the best games I’ve seen since I’ve been here for our defense.”

[+] EnlargeBrad Jones
John Grieshop/Getty ImagesBrad Jones' fumble recovery was one of four straight Packers takeaways in the first half.
But it wasn’t enough to save the Packers in Sunday’s 34-30 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

In one of the more remarkable defensive stretches by the Packers, they forced turnovers on four straight first-half possessions with an interception and three fumbles.

“It’s a shame that we couldn’t make a few more plays in the second half,” Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji said.

Or it’s a shame that the Packers couldn’t convert the takeaways into more points (other than the one safety M.D. Jennings returned for a touchdown, the Packers got only two field goals off the other three takeaways). Or that the Packers were in a 14-0 hole, thanks in part to a giveaway of their own when Jeremy Ross fumbled a kickoff that the Bengals recovered at the Packers’ 2-yard line.

Cornerback Sam Shields got the Packers’ defense started late in the first quarter when he picked off Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton, who was trying to hit A.J. Green. The Packers then forced fumbles on Cincinnati’s next three possessions. Linebacker Brad Jones ripped the ball away from away from tight end Jermaine Gresham, and A.J. Hawk recovered it. Then Clay Matthews forced a BenJarvus Green-Ellis fumble that Jennings returned 24 yards for a touchdown. Then Matthews got another one with a strip-sack of Dalton that Jones recovered.

Of the Bengals’ 34 points, a case could be made that the Packers’ defense wasn’t responsible for 14 of them – the touchdown after Ross’ fumble and the game-winning 58-yard fumble recovery return by cornerback Terence Newman.

“We’re doing some great things out there, even today, but ultimately, it’s about sustaining that success,” Matthews said. “We can’t just show flashes and then take the foot off the gas. We’ve got to keep it going. It is encouraging. We’re moving in the right direction, but our record doesn’t indicate that. We’ve just got to keep progressing.”

Starter Pack: Impossible to defend?

September, 19, 2013
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A roundup of what’s happening on the Green Bay Packers beat.

By itself, Aaron Rodgers’ 480-yard passing day in Sunday’s win over the Washington Redskins was a remarkable performance that tied the Packers’ single-game record for passing yards.

But combined with what has gone on around the NFL in the first two weeks of the season, perhaps it wasn’t such an anomaly.

ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert, with the help of our NFL Nation team of reporters, looked at the widespread increase in the passing game during the first two weeks of the regular season and got reaction from players around the league who were asked: “Is this the simple result of scheme development over time? Or has the NFL effectively made the pass impossible to defend?”

Packers defensive tackle Ryan Pickett weighed in with his thoughts, which echoed what many other defensive players were saying around the league.

“I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but it’s tougher, definitely tougher,” Pickett told me on Wednesday. “It’s the way the league is now. We play in an offensive league, so they’re going to protect offensive players. I don’t really care for it. But that’s how it is.”

Elsewhere:

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