GREEN BAY, Wis. — When Packers cornerback Sam Shields is able to return from the ankle injury that has sidelined him for the past three games, he’s going to find himself in a competition for the starting spot he held for most of this season.
With rookie Casey Hayward and second-year cornerback Davon House both playing well in Shields’ absence, the battle is on to see which of them becomes the starter opposite Tramon Williams.
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt was asked Monday if Hayward — who leads the team in interceptions and has started every game since Shields went out — has done enough to keep that job all season.
“No,” Whitt replied.
Then, asked if Shields will regain his starting role once he is back to health, Whitt again said, “No.”
Finally, Whitt was asked if it will be a competition between Hayward and Shields.
“Yes, and House is in there, too,” Whitt said.
Shields has done very little, other than get hurt, to justify losing his starting spot. He’s been the unfortunate recipient of several questionable officiating calls, including being shoved in the back by Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate just before Seattle caught what the replacement referees deemed a game-winning touchdown. It was a shove in the back, by the way, that the NFL later said should have been offensive pass interference on Tate.
But since Shields went down in obvious pain in Week 6, Hayward and House have stepped in and made the most of their opportunities.
“I’ve been pleased with (House) because he’s come probably further along than anybody I’ve had where, when he got here, his play-speed wasn’t what we wanted,” Whitt said. “But he’s worked hard in the offseason to get his play-speed up and get his temperament where it needs to be.
“So I look for more of him in the future.”
House, the Packers’ fourth-round pick in 2011, didn’t play on defense at all as a rookie. However, an impressive performance in training camp this year made him the clear favorite to win the starting job. But in Green Bay’s first preseason game, House injured his shoulder and was inactive for the first six games. House started getting playing time only after Shields was out.
Hayward is coming off a terrific stretch of games that resulted in his being named the NFL’s defensive rookie of the month for October. The Packers drafted Hayward late in the second round and have been asking him to play multiple positions in different defensive packages, especially since veteran safety Charles Woodson broke his collarbone.
“He’s really smart, (and) he doesn’t make mistakes,” Whitt said of Hayward. “That’s the thing. He might get beat, but he’s not going to make a lot of mental errors. The kid studies, he sees things, he’s a professional, he’s a mature young man. You like every aspect of that.
“Now it’s just, he’s going to see some things and things happen a lot faster in this NFL game than it happens in college. So he’s going to have to get used to some of that. But I think he’s doing an excellent job.”
It wasn’t until Shields’ injury that Hayward had a chance to show just how quickly he can pick up coverages and defensive schemes in a game. But Whitt has known that Hayward was capable of that from the moment they first started talking football strategy in February.
“When we had our interview with him at the (Draft) Combine, I knew in the first minute,” Whitt said. “We didn’t need to go any further. He knew what they were doing. Most guys can’t say what they’re doing position-wise. He knew what all 11 guys were doing and he knew how offenses were trying to attack him.
“He could really talk it through what the coaches were thinking, how they were being attacked, and you don’t get many guys that can do that. Most guys can’t even line themselves up and know the personnel formation they’re in. He’s outstanding.”
Hayward displayed some of that skill set in Sunday’s win over the Arizona Cardinals, when he broke up a pass that was then batted up into the air and intercepted by linebacker Erik Walden.
“To use that fall-back technique, that’s a Woodson-type play,” Whitt said. “Wood intercepted a ball against the Jets off the same technique, falling back against that same route combination. But you don’t see a lot of guys get that.”
The reason Hayward hasn’t completely locked up a full-time starting role, though, is because he’s still making rookie mistakes on occasion and getting beat by wide receivers on plays that frustrate the coaching staff. That happened against Arizona when Hayward allowed a 40-yard completion to Cardinals wideout Andre Roberts.
“We worked that specific play, so it shouldn’t have happened,” Whitt said. “He got beat. You’re going to get beat. We’ve been beat on that call with that route before. It’s a hard technique. But that’s what we asked of that play and he got beat on it.”
Prior to Sunday’s game, defensive coordinator Dom Capers also wasn’t committing to Shields as the starting cornerback once the speedy former undrafted player returns from injury.
“You just cross that bridge when you come to it,” Capers said. “The more competition you have, the better it’s going to make you, and the more depth you’ll have. (Hayward) has playmaking ability. He’s got football instincts. He’s taking advantage of his opportunities. When he’s had chances, he’s made plays.
“If guys are playmakers, the more opportunities they get, you’re going to see them make some plays, and he’s made some plays.”