GREEN BAY – When Dez Bryant returns to Lambeau Field on Sunday, 11 months and two days since his last visit, the outspoken Cowboys receiver is likely to have something to say about his controversial non-catch in last January’s playoff game.
Packers cornerback Sam Shields isn’t going to take the bait.
“The last couple times we played against each other, there’s been no words,” said Shields, who was defending Bryant near the south end zone pylon on the fateful fourth-and-2 pass with just over four minutes left.
“He’s quiet, I’m quiet. We just played football. I don’t think we’ll talk about that.”
Wait a minute … Dez Bryant, quiet?
“Every time I guard him, I never gave him a reason to be like that,” Shields said. “I just want to play football. That’s a lot of energy, doing all that talking.”
Shields will save his energy for covering the Cowboys’ most dynamic receiver, who isn’t having his best year after missing five games with a foot injury.
Bryant has just one 100-yard game to his credit in 2015, and he’s caught only two passes longer than 20 yards. QB Tony Romo’s absence is certainly a factor, but Bryant hasn’t produced anything like the guy who put up three straight 1,200-yard seasons from 2012-14.
Shields is taking nothing for granted, though, especially not with the motivation Bryant might feel returning to the so-called scene of the crime.
“It’s the same dude. Everybody goes through that,” Shields said. “He’s been hurt, but that’s something you can’t think about. You have to play him like he’s not hurt, because you never know.”
Mike McCarthy on Thursday credited Shields with playing the best football of his career since returning from a shoulder injury that cost him most of the Denver and Carolina games last month. He’s tackling perhaps better than he ever has, and last week might have been his best performance of the season.
Matched against Detroit’s Calvin Johnson almost exclusively, he held Megatron to just three catches (on eight targets) for 44 yards and a TD, which was a terrific catch against tight coverage.
Shields got some safety help at times, but he had to shadow Johnson all over the field because rookie cornerback Damarious Randall was out due to injury. Randall is back now, so the two may share duties on Bryant the way they did against Johnson in the first Detroit game. Then again, it might be Shields’ job all the way again.
In either case, Shields is prepared to line up across from Bryant as much as he has to, and he’ll be up for Oakland’s Amari Cooper next week and Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald the week after that, if he’s asked.
“When you’re undrafted, it’s all about opportunities, and it’s still with me,” said Shields, whose career began by making the roster as an undrafted rookie in 2010. “When I get those chances, I’m willing to take it and I’m ready. It’s either going to break me or make me, so I’m ready for the challenge.”
The Packers’ defense as a whole simply wants to pick up where it left off in Detroit, where it held the Lions to just two field goals over the final three quarters. Green Bay is currently ranked sixth in the league in points allowed.
Rookie Jake Ryan has taken over as a starting inside linebacker, and second-year big man Mike Pennel is playing more snaps up front. The most promising trend, though, might be the unit’s bounce-back ability after a rough stretch.
Five weeks ago in Carolina, after an abysmal first half, the defense gave up just 10 points in the second half to allow for a comeback attempt, and Randall got a key fourth-quarter interception that nearly led to a tie game.
Last week, a 17-point first quarter in Detroit wasn’t pretty, though players attributed it mostly to two costly miscommunications on a long run by Ameer Abdullah and a short, third-down TD pass to Eric Ebron.
Again, it was a turnover in the midst of the rally – Julius Peppers’ strip-sack and Ryan’s recovery – that changed the complexion of the game.
“This is a game of a few plays here and there,” Peppers said. “The difference between holding a team out of the end zone and making them kick a field goal is huge. That’s the thing we have to get better at.
“But these guys are tough. We’re going to grind the whole game. We’re going to continue to fight the whole game, and I think we’ve shown that the whole season. It was on display in the game in Detroit, so that’s something we’re proud of.”
Click here for all Packers-Cowboys preview coverage