GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Since Joe Whitt started coaching cornerbacks for the Green Bay Packers in 2009, he always assigned shutdown duties to one of his cornerbacks.
That plan is no more.
In what represents a significant change for the way the Packers will cover this season, Whitt and defensive coordinator Dom Capers have decided to leave their starting cornerbacks on their respective sides. Whitt said that decision was made well before Williams sustained his knee injury early in camp, and that plan will remain intact even after Williams returns, which the Packers hope is in time for the Sept. 8 opener at San Francisco.
“We have guys with similar ability,” Whitt said on Wednesday. “There’s no reason to be putting that all on one guy when they have to have that same receiver down in and down out. If we have guys that are equal in ability, you split it.”
That said, Whitt was quick to acknowledge that if one of his defenders proves unable to handle a certain matchup, say against Chicago’s Brandon Marshall or Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, then he would go back to matching coverage.
But going into the season, he doesn’t expect that to happen. Not with guys like Williams, Shields, Hyde and Casey Hayward (who led all NFL rookies last season with six interceptions while playing mostly in the slot).
“I told the group that I didn’t want to match this year,” Whitt said. “I want to go left and right and make sure that you have the ability to handle the guy that comes to your side.”
Perhaps it’s the result of a drop-off in the play of Williams, who the past two seasons couldn’t match his form from 2010 when he was one of the top cover men in the league.
Whitt, however, says that is not the case.
“I think Tramon got criticized for his tough matches and some other guys got more credit because they didn’t have those matches,” Whitt said. “Well, we’re going to give everybody the opportunity to get that tough match and now everybody has to play, and then we’ll see where everything is.”
What is apparent is that Shields, who started eight games last season, appears ready for a larger role. In 25 snaps over the first two preseason games, Shields has allowed only one completion for 17 yards, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
After staying away from team workouts most of the offseason while hoping for a long-term contract -- one he never received, leaving him with no choice but to sign the restricted free-agent tender of $2.023 million -- Shields has come back better than ever.
Whitt wouldn’t name any starters on Wednesday, but it was clear it would take a major collapse by Shields over the final two preseason games to lose his spot.
“But the way he’s practiced and the way he’s done it has been so clean, it’d be hard for me to believe that he’s not going to be one of those two,” Whitt said, “if not the top one.”
Shields’ eyes lit up on Wednesday when asked about the chance to cover any receiver who lines up on his side.
“It’s an opportunity for me to guard these guys and just get a chance to get that confidence, just have that confidence knowing I can stick whoever comes to my side,” Shields said. “Just go out there and do what I’ve been doing.”