Think back to the beginning of the 2010 season for a minute. The Packers defense was coming off an embarrassing playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals and the secondary faced many of the same questions that the pass rush faces today.
But instead of answering those questions in the draft, Ted Thompson’s solution was to plug in an undrafted rookie free agent that few people had heard of and actually had more experience as a wide receiver than a defensive back. Sam Shields came into camp with the reputation as a speedster, and that’s about it. Besides his ability to run really fast, nobody knew much else about him.
“This is how you’re going to fix the secondary, Ted?” Packers fans asked.
“Yup,” Thompson replied before taking another sip from his bottled water and turning away.
“Improving from within” was a talking point that Thompson and Mike McCarthy hammered home through training camp and the preseason. By 2010, most reasonable Packers fans understood that Thompson was rarely going to sign a free agent or make a trade that grabbed headlines.
But Sam Shields? Really? The Packers were supposed to be a Super Bowl caliber team and Thompson’s answer to the team’s main weakness was an undrafted converted receiver? This decision really put the “In Ted we Trust” mantra to the test.
Well, we know how it worked out. Shields had an excellent rookie season and sealed the Packers trip to the Super Bowl with a game-clinching interception in the NFC championship. Shields was so good, the Packers cut fan favorite Al Harris halfway through the season.
The Packers improved from within, alright. But it was Shields — an unknown outsider — who kickstarted some of that improvement.
The following season didn’t go so well for Shields, or the entire Packers defense. There were too many games where the defense looked outmatched like they were against Warner and the Cardinals. But instead of taking the improve from within approach again, Thompson used almost all of his draft picks on defense. He even signed a few free agents.
That doesn’t mean improving from within doesn’t apply to this group. Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy, Casey Heyward and the others are nice additions, but they’re not going to rescue this defense by themselves. Several players are going to have to get better, or improve from within. Shields tops the list.
No longer is Shields is an unknown commodity with low expectations. He showed what he can do in 2010 and set the bar high for himself. Then he stumbled in 2011.
Yes, it’s true that some of those stumbles can be blamed on an anemic pass rush and an overall decline from everyone on defense. Not having a full offseason program probably didn’t help, either.
Those excuses won’t fly this time around.
To get better, Shields has to get more physical and do a better job of finding the ball when it’s in the air and making an aggressive play on it. Speed is nice, but when matched against a bigger receiver when the ball is in the air, it doesn’t do you much good. Opposing teams figured that out against Shields.
How confident are you that Shields can return to his 2010 form this season? On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being very confident, I’d put myself at a 7.5. Generally, defensive backs under Thompson have played well if they showed signs of life earlier in their careers, even if they regressed a little somewhere along the way.
And Shield’s problems appeared to come more from fundamentals and a lack of aggression instead of a drop off in raw talent. Fundamentals can be coached. Speed cannot.
The Packers proved that improving from within can result in a Super Bowl in 2010. If Shields improves from within in 2012, it very well might happen again.