Sam Shields aims to break a long drought of TD kickoff returns

GREEN BAY — One of the unsung heroes during the Atlanta Falcons' 20-17 victory over the Green Bay Packers last week was Michael Koenen.
Koenen, Atlanta's punter, began the second half by sending a kickoff 5 yards deep into the end zone. Packers returner Sam Shields caught it and used his blazing speed to streak though a seam created by his blockers.

The only thing between Shields and the end zone was Koenen, who made an open-field tackle at the Green Bay 32‑yard line to preserve the Falcons' 10-3 lead.

"I thought it should have been a touchdown," Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "I thought it was when he hit (the hole)."
Not only did Koenen cost the Packers six points — Green Bay's offense went three-and-out following Shields' 37-yard return — he also helped extend a massive drought.

It's been more than 10 years since a Green Bay player returned a kickoff for a touchdown. The most recent to do it was Allen Rossum, whose 92-yard return with 4 minutes, 16 seconds remaining in the game helped the Packers beat the Indianapolis Colts 26-24 at Lambeau Field on Nov. 19, 2000.

The Colts had scored 17 straight points to pull within 19-17 when Rossum answered a Peyton Manning touchdown pass by returning the ensuing kickoff for a score.

In 160 regular-season games since that day — the equivalent of 10 full NFL seasons — 51 players have returned 640 kickoffs for the Packers without scoring a touchdown. It's the longest drought in the NFL.

Fifteen NFL teams have at least five kickoff returns for touchdowns during that span. The New York Jets have 13, including at least one in each of the past nine seasons.

There have been close calls along the way, the most recent coming last season against Detroit when Jordy Nelson's 99-yard return of the opening kickoff was wiped out by a holding penalty on Evan Dietrich-Smith.

Slocum was asked if it surprises him that it's been more than a decade since the Packers' most recent kickoff return for a score.

"Yeah, it does," said Slocum, who joined the Packers in 2006 as an assistant special teams coach before being promoted to coordinator prior to last season. "They're hard to come by. And we've had a couple opportunities here recently that have been negated by penalty. Hopefully, we'll get that done."

Samuel George Shields III, who was 12 years old when Rossum's return helped sink the Colts, may be just the man to end the drought.

The Packers rank No. 27 in kickoff returns with an average of 20.5 per attempt. But Shields has provided a spark with a 26.3 average on six returns, including a 49-yarder against Dallas in Week 9.

Shields is still a work in progress. The undrafted free agent out of Miami (Fla.) returned kickoffs during his days as a star at Booker High School in Sarasota, Fla., but the only opportunity he was given on that unit with the Hurricanes was when he took a handoff on a reverse and returned it 92 yards to the end zone against the University of Wisconsin in the Champs Sports Bowl last season, though a penalty negated the touchdown and brought the ball back to the UW 16.

Back in high school, Shields could just catch a kickoff and run. Now he has to be more patient.

"There's a lot to it," Shields said. "It's just knowing how this dude is going to block, and that hole should open right up. Things like that you've got to know. You get the ball and you just want to run. And once you see that hole you're going to hit it."

Shields' inexperience showed at times against the Falcons. On a return in the first quarter following an Atlanta field goal, Shields caught the ball 4 yards deep in the end zone and probably should have kneeled for a touchback.

Instead, he brought the ball out and made it to the 11 before being swarmed by a host of Atlanta players.

"You've just got to use your speed to get outside and get upfield," Shields said. "But I would think if there's nothing there, instead of me just going outside and losing yards, just go north and south. That was something that I had to correct when I came to watch film. That's something that I know for the next time."

Even on Shields' return to start the second half, Slocum thought the rookie could have done a better job. Knowing kickers generally try to tackle low, Slocum said Shields should have tried to jump or step over Koenen.

It's just another step in the learning process for Shields.

"Guys improve on running style," Slocum said. "There's an art to running the football. You don't just run. It's not Forrest Gump. There's technique involved, because the players that are coming after you have pursuit angles and you can do things by design to give you a better chance to be successful."

Shields, who was unaware of the team's drought on kickoff returns, acknowledged he missed a chance to score a touchdown against the Falcons.

"I've just got to keep going," Shields said. "It's going to come."

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