One of the biggest surprises of the Packers' Super Bowl run was the play of undrafted rookie cornerback Sam Shields. His emergence down the stretch in 2010 allowed defensive coordinator Dom Capers to open up the playbook, kick veteran Charles Woodson inside to rush the quarterback from the slot and generally provided a lot of flexibility for the defense overall.
Needless to say, that success has led to some worrying moments early on in the 2011 campaign. Shields looked uneven throughout training camp and during the preseason. While you can't expect guys to pickup right where they left off (unless they're Aaron Rodgers) Shields allowed a disconcerting number of completions throughout August. Worse than that was how he would follow those completions up with what can only be labeled lackluster effort at making the tackle.
Fine, some may have thought. Shields wins more than he loses. And its preseason. He's a gamer - the talent that we all saw on display in 2010 would pop out at us once the prime time lights came on against the Saints.
While Shields did go on to have a decent game in the opener, there were more than a few plays that flashed the warning signs that we saw this summer, most notably on the touchdown he gave up to Devery Henderson.
It's not that he got beat for a TD - every corner gets beat - its how eerily reminiscent that play was of the touchdown he gave up to Mike Wallace in the Super Bowl.
In both instances, Shields has trouble while trying to get his hands on the receiver while playing man press at the line. He at least manages to make contact with Henderson, but in both instances he opens his hips out at the outset and gives the receiver a free release off the line.
The problem here might stem from the fact that Shields is able to get away with getting beat at the line. He is sometimes able to use his incredible speed and athleticism to make up the ground lost by giving up the outside.
Earlier in the game last Thursday night, Shields had let a receiver off the line and but was able to use his fantastic recovery speed to stay on the receivers hip and nearly intercept Drew Brees' pass down the sideline. It was a great play - a great play that could be encouraging some bad habits.
Watching the touchdown to Henderson you see how both plays happen at nearly identical points on the field and are both a result of Shields not getting a good jam at the line while in press.
As Matt Bowen wrote about the Super Bowl play, there were several teachable moments that could be taken away from the Wallace touchdown. One of the problems Shields had in Dallas he actually improved on Thursday night. One of them he did not.
First there's the use of his hands when pressing the receiver off the line. Against Wallace he completely misses the receiver, allowing him a free release.
As a DB, your hands are your weapons at the point of attack in press-coverage. Keep your hands high and punch on the initial move from the WR. With Wallace releasing inside, Shields should punch with his outside (right) hand and then come back with his inside (left) hand once Wallace breaks back to the outside. However, when we see a DB that doesn’t want to use his hands in press-coverage, he is already at a disadvantage. Use your hands—because they also allow you to keep your body square to the WR.
We actually see some improvement in this area on the Henderson touchdown. Shields does a much better job of getting his hands on his man initially. Unfortunately, he doesn't really do much to impede Henderson on his break to the outside.
Which brings us to the second, more concerning point. Shields makes the exact same mistake he made in the Super Bowl, opening his hips ("Opening the gate" as Bowen calls it) and letting Henderson fly up the sideline - away from any safety help. (You can see free safety Nick Collins getting over late in the play) Shields needs to force his man inside when he's playing what looks to be Cover 1. But, just like in the Super Bowl, he allows his man an outside release and they're off to the races.
Actually, the thing that bothers me the most about the play on Thursday night is how Shields pretty much concedes the touchdown at the two yard line. I recognize he's probably not going to make the tackle, but you hate to see a guy just flat out stop competing before the receiver reaches the goal line.
Look, as I said before, every cornerback gets beat. Every defensive back gives up touchdowns. But you hate to see a guy making the same fundamental mistakes he was making the previous year.
Sam Shields is an incredible talent and could be a fantastic cornerback in the NFL for years to come - or, he could plateau after a surprising rookie campaign that put him on the map but, ultimately, gave the rest of the league all the tape it needs to beat him when it really matters.
Shields needs to trust the technique that he's being taught by Joe Whitt JR. more and rely on his brilliant athleticism a little less. If he can do that, I really think he could be one of the dominant corners in this league. He's very young and, as Mike McCarthy is fond of saying, he's got a lot of football in front of him.
The only question is - how great does Sam Shields want to be?