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Shields at a crossroads

By JASON WILDE

GREEN BAY – If Sam Shields is going to prove Joe Whitt right this season, the Green Bay Packers’ third-year cornerback has his work cut out for him.

In November 2010, Whitt, the Packers tell-it-like-it-is cornerbacks coach, was convinced Shields – then serving as the Packers’ No. 3 cornerback as an undrafted rookie free agent – was ticketed for greatness.

Given the accuracy of Whitt’s previous bold statements – for instance, he’d insisted before the 2010 season that Tramon Williams and not NFL Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson or injured two-time Pro Bowler Al Harris was the team’s best cover corner, and Williams had proven him right – he had earned the benefit of the doubt when he said something that sounded a lot like hyperbole.

“Write this down,” Whitt said. “Sam is going to be one of the top corners in this league in two years.”

So, we wrote it down. And on Tuesday, we wrote something else down, when Whitt was talking about the gaggle of corners – Shields, Jarrett Bush, 2011 fourth-round pick Davon House, rookie second-round pick Casey Hayward – in the mix behind Woodson and Williams. The question was about House, but it said more about Shields – and how far he’s fallen.

“House is just like the rest of those young guys, where he’s in a competition of, who’s next? House, Sam, Casey, Bush … who’s going to be the guy opposite those other two guys?” Whitt said. “He’s come a long way. He’s learning how to be more of an NFL player with his tempo. But that competition is very steep. And he’s right in the middle of it.”

So in 19 months, Shields has gone from being on the verge of elite corner status to being in the thick of a competition for the No. 3 cornerback job with a guy who played two games as a rookie last season (House), a rookie (Hayward) and the special teams ace (Bush) who replaced him in the nickel on early downs in the team’s season-ending NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the New York Giants in January.

Asked if he’s at a crossroads season, Shields replied: “I’m not looking at that. I’m just trying to get better each day and get from the guys like Tramon and Wood, get with them guys. “I don’t look at last year. I just look at it whatever mistakes I had, I look at it this year as helping me out. And it’s getting better and better every day.”

While defensive coordinator Dom Capers said not to read too much into it, Bush did appear to be ahead of Shields throughout organized team activity practices and the two open-to-the-public mandatory minicamp practices this week. Asked why Shields, who according to ProFootballFocus.com was the Packers’ worst pass defender last season, took such a step back last year, Capers pointed to Shields’ inexperience on the defensive side of the ball and his inability to diagnose run or plays effectively as his playing time spiked with the defense’s expanded use of sub packages.

“He had to play a lot more on first and second down and (in) either/or, run/pass situations, which involve your footwork, read run or pass, react,” said Capers, who played Shields 819 snaps in 18 games in 2010 (including playoffs) and 766 snaps in 16 games (including playoffs) last year. “He was a little bit more of a specialist in 2010. We think that, going into his third year, with the work here in the offseason, hopefully it’s going to enable him to become more of a complete player where he can play on first, second or third down.

“He has made some progress there, but like all of these guys, you want to see him once we put the pads on in training camp because it becomes a different game. The slower you are in reading, you’re going to put yourself in a tough position to get the play made.”

But according to Whitt, the blame for Shields’ disappointing sophomore season rests not with Shields, but with him.

“Sam’s problem was me. I did a poor job with Sam. I did a poor job with him. I took for granted that he knew or was going to know some things,” Whitt said. “He’s still a young player. He’s now a three-year defensive player. And I did a poor job with him. Like I said his rookie year, if he plays poor, well that’s on me. He didn’t play as well last year, and that’s on me. He’s going to play better, because I understand how to coach him and not take for granted some things that a guy who’s played on defense a little bit longer just understands just from playing it. I did a poor job with him.”

One of the reasons Shields was such a vital part of the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV-winning defense was Whitt’s coaching. To teach Shields, who’d spent his first three years in college at Miami (Fla.) playing wide receiver, he used flashcards to teach him the defense.

When reminded that players bear responsibility for their performances, too, Whitt replied: “They do have responsibility, and I hold him accountable in that (cornerbacks) room. But I don’t think coaches do enough saying they made mistakes, too. I didn’t do a good enough job with him. That will be taken care of.”

What Whitt also vows will be taken care of is Shields’ apparent unwillingness to tackle. He missed 10 tackles according to ProFootballFocus.com last year, and while he also appeared to guess and gamble more in coverage, it was his poor tackling that was the greater concern among the coaches.

“I’m going to give him every opportunity once we put pads on to see if he wants to do it or not,” Whitt said of tackling. “He’s going to have every opportunity.

“The guys who are going to tackle will be out there. The guys who won’t will watch.”

Shields acknowledged his poor tackling, saying: “My main focus that I have to work on is my tackling. I don’t the covering and all that wasn’t bad. Only thing that was stopping me was tackling, and that’s something that I have to keep working on that I haven’t worked on. I’ve been a receiver. So I’m going to work on it this offseason – however I can to help me tackle. Coach Witt is helping me work on that and it’s getting better.”

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.

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