Sam Shields is the fastest player on the Green Bay Packers’ roster. His progress at cornerback has been just as fast.
The undrafted rookie will be given a shot to earn what amounts to a starting position in the Packers’ frequently used nickel package. To win that role, he’ll have to shine against elite competition. While Shields almost picked off Cleveland’s Brett Ratliff in the first preseason game and clinched the Seattle game with an interception of Charlie Whitehurst, he will face the infinitely bigger challenge of squaring off against Peyton Manning and the high-flying Indianapolis Colts on Thursday night.
“He’s going to get a chance this week,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “He’s shown that he’s had the ability to make plays, get his hands on balls. He didn’t catch the ball in the Cleveland game, but if he catches that one, we win that game. He caught the one this past game. He’s shown the ability to cover. They haven’t completed balls on him, but at the same time, he’s not going against their (No.) 1 receivers, their (No. 1) quarterback. The ball’s coming out slower and the receivers’ routes are slower. So, I’m going to give him the opportunity to go against these fast guys, the best quarterback in the league, and see what he does with that.”
It’s been a metoric rise for Shields. At Miami, he was a part-time starter at receiver for his first three seasons before moving to cornerback as a senior. He started 10 games but didn’t have an interception, then was ignored in the draft despite running his 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds at Miami’s pro day. Shields, however, made an instant splash during the first week of training camp, capped by his brilliant interception and 98-yard return for a touchdown on Family Night.
With Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams being the starting corners throughout training camp, Brandon Underwood and Pat Lee had been rotating as the third cornerback. Whitt, however, hasn’t seen Underwood and Lee bring their strong performances at practice to the playing field consistently enough. So, with Manning coming to town, now’s the time to see if Shields is ready for prime time.
“Once we start playing these games in a couple weeks, your evaluation is going to be based on them going against the best,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “And sometimes you can get a little false sense of security if you don’t have an opportunity to do that. that’s part of the evaluation process. The more we can see those guys against the No. 1s that they’re going to be playing against, it gives us a truer evaluation of where we are.”
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It’s already been a big week for Shields, who has earned promotions to the No. 1 kickoff team, punt team and punt return team. Now, he’s got a chance to be the third corner, a position that’s on the field more than the starting nose tackle.
“That’s a big opportunity,” Shields said. “When you get your opportunities, you have to make things happen, make a big play out there.”
That’s exactly what Lee and Underwood haven’t done.
“I mean, it’s not a question if they can play or not. They all can play,” Williams said. “They all have the ability. The question is, can you do that on game day? Because everyone is comfortable and calm at practice because there’s no pressure. But under the lights, when the lights are turned on, how can you turn that, the way you practice, the calmness that you practice with, all that into the game? And that’s what separates a lot of guys right there. I know that’s what separates Woodson. The guy, it’s just so easy to him, he practices just like he plays. It’s just that easy to him. That’s basically what you’re trying to get.”
Underwood started slowly against Cleveland but finished with an interception and two passes defensed in a mostly positive performance. At Seattle, however, he seemed a step slow against Matt Hasselbeck and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. In two games, Lee has not broken up a pass.
“It’s all about having confidence on the field,” Underwood said. “I get up and I line up against Greg (Jennings) and Drive (Donald Driver) and those guys every day, and I get up there and I press those guys, so it’s just a mind-set. When the lights come on, I can’t change my mentality that I take from the practice field to the game field. I have to carry that over, have the same mentality that I have on the game field that I do on the practice field. So, just to be able to have that mentality is going to be what’s going to be able to separate me and make that player that I want to be on that field.”
Underwood, Lee and Shields will get that opportunity against three-time MVP Manning and a deep and underrated receiving corps anchored by Reggie Wayne.
“We think both the young men have had good training camps,” Capers said of Underwod and Lee. “What you hope to see is it carry into game day, game night, what you see on the practice field. You’re going to see Sam Shields get some opportunities, too, this week. We just think we’ve got to give him a chance to show what he can do. So, I think all three of those young men are still battling. There has not been any decisions made as far as who we would put out there after Charles and Tramon.”
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.