Green Bay Packers CB Sam Shields’ speed outweighs risk in return role : Packers Insider

Green Bay Packers CB Sam Shields’ speed outweighs risk in return role

November 19, 2010 by  
Filed under News

Nov 19, 2010 ~ by Rob Demovsky, Press-Gazette

~Sam Shields dropped, muffed or fumbled so many kickoffs and punts during training camp and the preseason that the legion of reporters who blog and tweet off every Green Bay Packers practice should have programmed a quick key for that text.

After the undrafted rookie dropped a kickoff in the end zone, then muffed a punt in the same preseason game against the Cleveland Browns, the experiment seemingly was over.

As long as he catches it: He has the skills to be one of those guys,” Crosby said. “Obviously, he showed his speed. I think he just needs more opportunities, but with our defense, who knows how many chances he’s going to get? It’s one of those things where you can’t really say too much until he repeats it. Guys like Hester, it’s repeated acts.”

Almost no one who observed those repeated scenes would have imagined that three months later coach Mike McCarthy and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum would have the nerve to stick Shields back on the goal line on Nov. 7 to receive the opening kickoff of the second half against the Dallas Cowboys. Then again, almost no one outside the organization knew Shields had been catching balls off the JUGS machines before practice, after practice and on his days off for three months.

When Shields cleanly fielded that kickoff 6 yards deep in his end zone against the Cowboys, many of the 70,913 at Lambeau Field probably let out a sigh of relief.

“I remember watching it from the sideline, and (Cowboys kicker David) Buehler crushed that kick with good hang time and 6 yards deep, and I was like, ‘Oh, too bad Sam will have to just kneel on this one,’” Packers punter Tim Masthay said.

But Slocum knew there was more to come. Sure enough, Shields turned on his speed — his 4.2-second, 40-yard-dash speed — and blew past the Cowboys’ coverage unit for a 49-yard return, the Packers’ second-longest kickoff return of the season.

“When he brought it out, I was like, ‘Oh crap,’” Masthay said. “The next thing I knew he was at the 45-(actually the 43-)yard line. His biggest upside is that he’s just lightning fast, and I mean fast to a different level. He’s probably one of the fastest guys in the league.”

When told return guys don’t normally take it from 6 yards deep, Slocum said: “Not normally, no. But he’s not normal.”

There was nothing special about the way the Packers blocked that return. Slocum said the Cowboys had some good tackling angles on Shields. He just outran them.

Forget for a moment Shields has settled into the third cornerback spot and has looked nothing like an undrafted free agent who played receiver for most of his college career at the University of Miami. That’s another success story.

This story is about the risk the Packers seemingly took by putting Shields on kickoff returns and the rewards they hope to see.

“I was hoping,” Shields said when asked this week whether he thought he’d get another opportunity after all the drops this summer. “I never gave up on it. It was just that they had other guys. At that time, I wasn’t catching it and wasn’t giving the coaches enough confidence in me to put me back there.”

They used receiver Jordy Nelson, who other than a 51-yard return in Week 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles, was ordinary. Nelson then lost two fumbles against Detroit on Oct. 3 and eventually lost the job to backup cornerback Pat Lee, who couldn’t keep it because he sustained an ankle injury against the Jets on Oct. 31.

Shields has only that lone return against the Cowboys on his NFL resume, but it was enough to convince McCarthy and Slocum to give him the job full time. Slocum on Thursday said he wouldn’t rule out the possibility Shields could go back to returning punts, a far more dangerous job considering he would have to catch the ball in heavy traffic, unlike on kickoff returns where the defenders are far away.

But the Packers are convinced Shields no longer has slippery fingers.

“He’s definitely improved with his hands,” said kicker Mason Crosby, who witnessed some of the extra work Shields put in during his free time. “It’s a learned skill. You just have to get used to catching it over and over and over again.”

Masthay, too, was on the practice field for much of Shields’ work with the JUGS machine and sees a different return man, a more confident one, than he watched over the summer.

“A lot of times that’s all it takes, one big play like that, and the sky’s the limit for him,” Masthay said. “That kickoff return he had against Dallas, that might have been all it took for him and it not be an issue at all.”

Every week, Crosby and Masthay have to prepare strategies they believe will limit returners’ opportunities for big plays. In their division, they have to face one of the most dangerous ones, Chicago’s Devin Hester, who returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown against the Packers on Sept. 27. Both Crosby and Masthay said this week that even after only one kickoff return, Minnesota Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell almost certainly will have to come up with a strategy for kicking to — or away from — Shields.

“He has such blazing speed that you don’t want him running right at you,” Crosby said. “You can almost lose him, too, because he’s fast and smaller (5-foot-11), and he can hide back there. Once a guy like that gets on the edge, he can be pretty dangerous.”

Full story HERE

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