You’re Jay Cutler. What do you do in the passing game on Sunday?
Do you go after Charles Woodson, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year? Do pick on Tramon Williams, who leads the NFL with nine combined regular season and postseason interceptions? Do attempt to go in the direction of three-time Pro Bowler Nick Collins?
Or do you go after the undrafted rookie Sam Shields?
“I’d go after me,” said Shields on Wednesday, “but that’s what I want.”
Shields might be the lesser of about four evils when it comes to the Green Bay Packers secondary, but as far as head coach Mike McCarthy is concerned, it’s pick your poison.
“We play so much sub, so I think people are thrown more towards Sam than Tramon,” said McCarthy. “I think that’s apparent. But Tramon, he’s been getting opportunities, and I’m sure of late that people will take a closer look at it, because he’s been making big plays.”
The Falcons recognized they better start throwing away from Williams in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs – especially after two first half interceptions – and started throwing the way of Sam Shields, who was matched up wide receiver Michael Jenkins much of the afternoon.
Did Shields give up some completions? Sure, he’s not perfect. But he didn’t give up any scoring plays, and for the most part, held Jenkins in check.
“They was coming at me,” said Shields, “that’s what quarterbacks do. You know, a rookie on that side with a veteran receiver, I expect that. They came my way, I made a couple plays, he made a couple plays.”
The most attention-grabbing thing to take away from the Atlanta game, however, might be that Shields was called for his first penalty of the entire season, a pass interference call in the second quarter.
Shields isn’t technically considered a starter, but with as much as the Packers play in their nickel package, he’s typically on the field more than 50% of the time (sometimes considerably more) on defense, and it’s amazing that he hasn’t been flagged a single time prior to Saturday.
It just goes to show how good of a season Shields has had, pretty much from Week 1 onward.
“Sam’s put together a good season,” said McCarthy. “I mean, my goodness, to come here as a free agent and earn his spot, it’s exciting because you just see Sam getting better with all the different opportunities. He had the big?time play he had in Philadelphia … But Sam’s playing well. We obviously play one?on?one man?free coverage with him. I think it speaks volumes.”
The big-time play against Philadelphia was a deflected pass deep down the right sideline intended for Jeremy Maclin, in which Shields had to make up lost ground against a wide receiver known for his speed.
Woodson, the elder statesman of the Packers’ secondary, is equally impressed with the body of work Shields has been able to cobble together this season.
“He’s been great, man,” said Woodson. “I think you have a young guy who came in who really had no fear, you know, came in with a ton of athletic ability. But he didn’t have any fear. You know, he took the challenge of being an undrafted player and having an opportunity to come in and play for this team, and he took coaching well.”
Shields’ position coach, Joe Whitt, has been getting rave reviews for the job he’s been able to do with the Packers cornerbacks this season.
From being able to relate to an experienced veteran like Woodson, who’s actually Whitt’s elder, to mentoring a rookie like Shields, who’s been able to play at a high level in his first NFL season, Whitt deserves a ton of credit.
“I think probably the biggest thing for [Shields] has been his coach, you know, Joe Whitt,” said Woodson. “I think Joe is probably one of the best young coaches that this game has to offer, and he has that rare combination, I think, of being able to be an Xs and Os guy and then also being a great teacher, being able to teach a young guy like Sam where he needs to be and at the same time why he needs to be there and why it makes a defense work.
“So having a coach like that coaching you and then being a great athlete at the same time works in your favor. He’s taking coaching. He’s a young guy that takes notes. You don’t see a lot of young guys that come in take notes. You can see him, he’s in watching film and those sort of things. He’s done himself well in that department.”
The task doesn’t get any easier for Shields in the upcoming NFC Championship with a trip to Super Bowl on the line.
With Soldier Field getting a lot of attention for the shoddy condition the surface is in, defensive backs could be at a disadvantage on Sunday.
“I would think it helps the individual with the football,” said McCarthy. “I think anytime you’re on a surface that’s not the level you’d like it to be, it favors the man with the football or it favors the individual that knows where the football is going. That’s the way I’ve always viewed it.”
But if Shields is able to play at the same level he’s played all season long, there may not be a whole lot to worry about.