When the Green Bay Packers lined up to return the second-half kickoff against the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday, undrafted rookie cornerback Sam Shields broke a cardinal rule.
Shields lined up near the goal line and drifted 6 yards deep in the end zone. Normally, the returner should take a knee for a touchback in that situation.
“Not normally,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said on Thursday. “But he’s not normal.”
Shields, who was timed at 4.20 seconds in the 40-yard dash, is indeed not normal. Shields returned that kickoff 49 yards — “I saw the hole and I hit it” was his matter-of-fact explanation. Because of that one return, he will line up as the kickoff returner when the Packers play at Minnesota on Sunday.
Shields’ ability was evident against Dallas. But during the preseason, Shields had fumbled away chance after chance to return kickoffs and punts by routinely dropping the ball in practice and games.
Through plenty of extra work before and after practice, Shields has become so sure-handed that Slocum said he wouldn't hesitate to use Shields on punts, too. The Packers rank 21st in punt returns, with Tramon Williams averaging 8.0 yards per return.
“I didn’t tell him anything,” Slocum said about Shields' early problems. “Guys grow as players and focus changes, all those things. When he first got here, there were a lot of things that were new to him. He’s trying to learn the playbook on defense, trying to get acclimated there, all the different things we’re asking him to do on special teams. It’s a lot. He settled into his position and with that, I think it allows him to continue to grow in all the areas. He’s done a very good job. We go out, for example today, he probably caught 15 or 20 balls using the JUGS machine before we ever went to our kickoff return.”
During camp, Shields had to split his focus between fielding kicks and learning the defense and the skills taught by cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt. Shields won the the third corner job by the middle of the preseason, and since he’s settled into that role, he’s been given an opportunity to cure the Packers’ 28th-ranked kickoff return.
“I can be very dangerous,” he said. “Like you said, I just need to catch the ball. Once I get going and see a hole, I’ve got to burst and just use my speed.”
Bringing the heat
The Packers are tied with St. Louis for the NFL lead in sacks with 28, with Clay Matthews leading the individual race with 10.5.
Minnesota, on the other hand, ranks tied for 17th in sacks allowed with 19, though the Packers got to Favre only once last month.
“They've done a nice job with their pressure package,” Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell told reporters at Winter Park. “They bring it from different personnel groups, from different sides of the ball, safeties, DBs, linebackers. They do a good job with that just to be able to keep you off balance. I think that's boded well for them in getting the turnovers that they've had, getting pressure on the quarterback, freeing up Clay Matthews a little bit. They've done a nice job with their package so it's something that we have to be aware of.”
Packers injury report
Limited participation: WR Donald Driver (quad); FB Korey Hall (back); LB Clay Matthews (shin); DE Ryan Pickett (ankle); C Scott Wells (arch); CB Charles Woodson (toe). Full participation: LB Brandon Chillar (shoulder); T Chad Clifton (knee); CB Pat Lee (ankle); TE Andrew Quarless (shoulder).
Coach Mike McCarthy said Pickett did “a lot more” on Thursday than Wednesday, and the goal for Driver is to practice on Friday.
“I feel like I need to be out there. I do,” Pickett said. “I think I help the team. That’s why I’m fighting so hard. I know people say just take your time, but it’s hard to. I want to get back out there. That’s how I feel.”
New to the list are Hall and Wells. Wells insisted he was fine — McCarthy said the same thing. Hall’s back locked up on him early at practice, and his fate for Sunday will be determined in large part on how he feels on Friday.
“Korey and John (Kuhn) have done an excellent job because they have a number of different roles, both on special teams and for our offense,” McCarthy said. “Just the way we used them week in and week out, obviously our offense has changed throughout the season. But I’m very pleased with the performance of both Korey Hall and John Kuhn.”
Vikings injury report
Did not participate: S Eric Frampton (hamstring). Limited participation: WR Bernard Berrian (groin); QB Brett Favre (ankle/foot); WR Percy Harvin (ankle); G Anthony Herrera (elbow); C John Sullivan (calf). Full participation: CB Asher Allen (concussion); CB Chris Cook (knee); S Jamarca Sanford (hamstring).
Speaking to reporters in Minnesota, Vikings coach Brad Childress gave no indication on whether he’d activate receiver Sidney Rice from the physically unable to perform list.
Four-point stance: Battle No. 100
Sunday’s game at Mall of America Field will mark the 100th game of one of the NFL’s most compelling rivalries.
— The Packers hold a 50-48-1 edge, thanks in large part to Vince Lombardi posting a 9-1 mark in his first 10 games against the Vikings. Minnesota won the only playoff matchup 31-17 on Jan. 9, 2005, with Brett Favre throwing four interceptions.
— If that’s not close enough for you, 14 of the last 16 games have been decided by seven points or less, including the Packers’ 28-24 victory on Oct. 24 at Lambeau Field. The two exceptions: the Packers’ 34-0 victory over Tarvaris Jackson and the Vikings in 2007 and the Vikings 38-26 win at Lambeau last year.
— Coaches McCarthy and Brad Childress were part of the NFL’s 10-coach Class of 2006. McCarthy is 6-3 against Childress, including a 5-0 start.
— Donald Driver has done some of his best work against the Vikings, with a career-high 191 yards at Minnesota on Nov. 12, 2006, and a career-high 11 receptions (and a then-career-high 162 yards) at Minnesota on Dec. 24, 2004.
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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 email@example.com, 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.