GREEN BAY, Wis. -- If you looked at the Oct. 6 game at Lambeau Field, when the Detroit Lions played without all-everything receiver Calvin Johnson, and thought the Green Bay Packers caught a break, you don’t see things the same way as Sam Shields.
The Packers’ budding star of a cornerback was disappointed that Johnson was a last-minute scratch because of a knee injury.
Although it rendered the Lions almost completely ineffective -- they put up a season-low 286 yards of total offense -- and the Packers cruised to a stress-free 22-9 victory, Shields came away with something of a hollow feeling.
“We’ve got another game against them coming this Thanksgiving,” Shields said a few days after that game.
And it looks like Shields will be back just in time for that. The fourth-year cornerback missed the last two games because of a hamstring injury, but he is expected to play in Thursday’s rematch at Ford Field.
“He wants it,” Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “Sam has tried to show that he is an every-down corner.”
Whitt and defensive coordinator Dom Capers have given him that chance. More often than not, when they want to match a cornerback against a top receiver, they have used Shields instead of Tramon Williams.
“Usually, I’ll see Tramon; he’ll carry me around the field,” Johnson said this week. “Whether he’ll do that this game or not, we’ll see.”
That doesn’t mean Whitt and Capers will simply line up Shields, Williams or anyone else across from Johnson and let them cover the 6-foot-5, 239-pound receiver known as “Megatron” by himself. Whichever cornerback draws the assignment, he will often have help from a safety over the top.
“You have to mix it up,” Capers said. “Now, they have [running back] Reggie Bush. If you’re sitting out there with two guys on Calvin Johnson, then you’re going to be short inside with the run, the screen game, that type of thing. They have a pretty good mixture now of personnel. It’s one of the reasons why yardage-wise they’re in the top 5.”
With Shields in a contract year, nothing would add numbers to the left of the decimal point like a big game against Johnson.
“He’s trying to make that next step to, can he be in the conversation with some of those top corners that are out there?” Whitt said. “I believe the way he’s played -- we haven’t played as well as I would hope that we would play on defense and in the secondary, but he has. You can’t take that away from him.”
The Packers rank 20th in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game, but that shouldn’t diminish what Shields has done, according to Whitt. Still, doing it against Johnson might be a different story.
Lately, Johnson has gotten the better of the Packers.
Consider his last three games against them:
Dec. 9, 2012: 10 catches, 118 yards
Nov. 18, 2012: five catches, 143 yards, one touchdown
Jan. 1, 2012: 11 catches, 244 yards, one touchdown
“He’s the best receiver in the league,” Whitt said. “He’s the most talented. He’s the most gifted. You need everybody involved, and you have to play almost perfect just to have a chance with him. He’s that good.”
Despite missing one game this season, Johnson leads the NFL in receiving yards (1,198), and it’s not even that close. He has a 154-yard lead over Antonio Brown of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Johnson also leads all NFL receivers with 11 touchdowns. Only New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham has matched that.
What has impressed the Packers' coaches is how Johnson’s game has evolved. Whitt said early in Johnson’s career the Lions used him on four basic routes.
“Now he runs the whole route tree, and he runs it well,” Whitt said. “He’s really gifted, so it’s difficult. It’s hard to just match one guy on him because he’s going to be in the slot, so the nickel is going to have to be on him. If you’re in a fire-zone [blitz], you have different people that at some point are going to matchup on him. You just have to be aware of him and go attack.”