Among the stockpile of injuries the Green Bay Packers have been forced to deal with this season, the forgotten man was cornerback Sam Shields.
It was always Greg Jennings, Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson receiving the most buzz as to who was absent from the active roster each week. But who knew that the return of Sam Shields would propel the Packers past the Detroit Lions on Sunday night?
Shields, who injured his ankle late in a game against the Houston Texans back on Oct. 14, was finally healthy enough to give it a go, and because of the uncertainty of how quickly he could shake off the rust—and how well Davon House had played in his absence—it was House who started as the nickel corner.
But House struggled early, as the Packers were forced to stay in the nickel package because of injuries on the defensive line. In the second quarter, with Green Bay trailing 14-3, the slumping House, who missed a tackle on the opening drive and was picked on multiple times, was pulled in favor of Shields.
It proved to be the difference.
A result of incredible fortune, Mike Daniels scored a defensive touchdown after recovering a fumble that slipped out of Matthew Stafford's hand as he was cocking his arm to throw a pass. On the very next Lions' possession, it was Shields who took advantage of a poorly run route by Kris Durham, intercepting Stafford and returning the pick 32 yards to keep momentum on Green Bay's side.
Does the combo of Williams-Hayward-Shields at cornerback open the door for Woodson to play more safety?
While Tramon Williams fell in the estimation of fans and the media alike for his work on Calvin Johnson, it was Shields who stepped up after an eight-week hiatus to be the difference-maker.
He tied Williams and Casey Hayward for the most passes defensed with two despite not playing for more than an entire quarter. There's no question Williams deserves a lot of credit for how he defended Megatron—many times in one-on-one coverage—but if Shields had not been inserted for House, the other side of the field would have continued to be picked apart.
To miss over half of the season and step in without missing a beat is a true testament to how Shields seemingly rededicated himself over the offseason after a poor sophomore season, and it is a reminder of how well Shields was playing prior to his injury.
The pending return of Charles Woodson, who is expected back this week against the Chicago Bears, will now not be so much out of necessity—especially considering how well Shields played against Detroit, as well as the pleasant surprise of Hayward and the No.1 corner-like play of Williams.
Woodson's presence will only make this secondary stronger, and the solid play at cornerback could allow him to play safety outside of the base defense opposite Morgan Burnett. That's not to say safeties Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings can't be trusted, but their inexperience and lack of playmaking ability could be a concern down the stretch.
A revitalized ground attack was also crucial to Green Bay's comeback victory Sunday night.
Falling behind 14-0 could have easily encouraged Mike McCarthy to abandon the running game, but he didn't—and a three-headed RB attack might very well be a successful formula moving forward.
DuJuan Harris, a 5'9", second-year tailback out of Troy, is a punishing back who ran with a purpose and even managed to find the end zone in his debut with the Packers. Alex Green was also effective, as he seems to perform better when some of the load is taken off his shoulder.
And then there is Ryan Grant, whom the Packers brought back last week following the knee injury suffered by James Starks. Even though Grant rushed only once, it was for 13 yards, and he is someone McCarthy would like to use in late-games situations as a fresh back off the bench.
An effective ground game was refreshing for Green Bay, but the interception and overall impressive play of Shields halted a confident Detroit offense and allowed the Packers to stick with their game plan on offense.
With the Packers getting healthy at just the right time, it was the play of Shields—and that of the lesser-known DuJuan Harris—who helped bridge the gap to the return of Matthews and Woodson.