When training camp began last season, Sam Shields was something of a novelty.
Everyone knew he could run like the wind. Nobody knew if he could play.
Least of all, the coaches.
Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams were the obvious starters at cornerback. The only question was who’d be the third cornerback until veteran Al Harris was deemed healthy. Would 2008 second-round pick Pat Lee finally play to expectations? Would 2009 sixth-round pick Brandon Underwood put his obvious physical tools to use? What about Josh Bell? Jarrett Bush?
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While Lee and Underwood put together one uninspiring practice after another and Bell was injured, Shields would make a play here or there that caught everyone’s attention. It began on the first day of training camp and continued on Family Night and through the preseason.
“Sam was a guy that we really didn’t know much about — undrafted free agent — but every day on the practice field, you’d see him make one play, and you’d go in and say, ‘If we can get him to play every play like this play, we’ll really have something,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on Wednesday.
Shields wound up being one of the team’s many unsung heroes, playing so well that Harris was released rather than inserted in Shields’ place. He didn’t back down against Philadelphia’s full-court press of an offense in the season opener, and he didn’t back down with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line at Chicago. At a position where even first-rounders are picked on as rookies, Shields never played like a rookie. He wasn’t perfect but there’s little doubt that the Packers wouldn’t have sniffed the Super Bowl if not for the undrafted rookie.
With Shields, Capers lined up in nickel more than maybe any team in NFL history. It was the perfect scheme for their personnel. Budding star Williams and Shields lined up on the outside, allowing Capers to hide Woodson’s waning speed but accentuate Woodson’s otherworldly combination of toughness and guile by putting him in the slot. So, even while going from nine interceptions to two, Woodson remained a dominant force because of his guts in run support and knack for pressuring the quarterback.
Williams, meanwhile, blossomed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams to become one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks. In 20 total games, he finished with nine interceptions. And talk about clutch: He ended the playoff win at Philadelphia with an interception in the end zone, essentially ended the romp at Atlanta with two interceptions late in the first half, including a pick-six on the final play of the half, and he ended the Super Bowl when Ben Roethlisberger inexplicably threw at him on fourth down.
Together, the Packers finished first in the NFL in opponent passer rating at 67.2. As a whole, Green Bay allowed 14 touchdown passes while intercepting 21. That’s a testament to a secondary without weakness.
The Packers bolstered the unit in the draft with fourth-round pick Davon House, a highly talented prospect who the Packers hope will prosper under the guidance of position coach Joe Whitt. Bush probably makes it on special teams again. Underwood and Lee will battle for the last spot.
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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.