Did you guys know players on the team call Eric Reid "E.R."?
(Please laugh at this paintjob, it's a joke.)
Eric and Jimmy aren't going to be the biggest hitters, but it's catchy.
I think Ward brings the ability to allow Reid to ball hawk as the single high FS. This a big deal because single high is the ideal defense. How can Ward, covering the slot from the SS position be such a big help to Ried? That answer is, sorta in the same way a certain SS, playing inside the box frees up ET. Ward starting at SS is a long way off, if ever, in the meantime he'll be our starting Nickel. When he comes on the field I expect Fangio to show a single high look with press on the outside. This will be the evolution of our defense, because sooner or later Ward won't be coming off the field.
For comparison of single high schemes currently, the only other place to look is seattle. Their safety tandem is dominant in their cover-1 shell. However, though Reid and ET may play alike, Kam and Ward couldn't be more different. Seattle puts Kam in the box to discourage the run but Ward will be our starting Nickel back day one, then I believe, will work his way to starting FS at some point. How and when this works is all up for debate.
Finding a SS like Kam, to be big and heavy in the box, is hard to do. However, it's just as hard to find a SS like Ward, to be agile, strong and smart, who can cover the nickel and be a certain tackler. Ward is a special, special player.
So, 2 takeaways:
1. Single high safety is our future. Even if Reid and Ward are as identical as Pat and Bow are (cuz they might be) we will have a safety in the box and one over the top on every down. IMHO.
2. Ward is NOT Kam Chancellor. He could be just as good, but not in the same way. As a nickel coverage SS, not the run-stuffing psuedo-linebacker Kam is. He's great, just making sure we've covered the differences that make them each special.
So, here we go..
We've engaged in generous exchange of ideas regarding Jimmy Ward's projected immediate impact as a Nickel DB, a starter in this defense. 60% of our snaps on defense are in Nickel. We've broken down why this is (because teams cannot run or throw on our base defense) and how this makes run tackling a major Nickel DB responsibility (in addition to locking down the slot).
The Nickel might be able to lock down the slot WR, but that's worthless to the defense if he isn't a stellar run stopper. On the contrary, he isn't going to be asked to play like Kam Chancellor, because gigantic run stuffing without an ability to blanket a receiver is similarly worthless to the 49ers. We're not doing that, though we might if we had their safeties. But nobody does, that's why nobody runs their defense. But guess what, nobody has Eric Ried over top a slot receiver shut-down SS either. We are just as unique with Ward at SS, just in a different way. With Ward being able to do both jobs we need from him, Nickel DB and run stuff, we will be able to run the #1 coveted scheme: constant single high safety coverage without ever needing to take our SS off the field. That last part is most important.
This is why Ward embodies the next step in evolution for Fangio's defensive scheme. We'll outline this evolution faintly, followed by a poll for kix.
Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor make seattle's defense special. ET has the rare ability to play dedicated single high cover 1 over the top (yadda yadda) allowing Kam to basically play like a run stuffing LB in front of him. This combo allows each CB to A) ignore the run and B) to stay beneath the WR. These are 2 huge scheme advantages. Consider a triangle, it's base corners the 2 DBs beneath ET, who is the point on top, sitting at about 17 yards deep. At the snap these 3 points operate in concert, making a live shape-shifting triangle that brackets receivers high and low. Ever notice how a seattle CB is almost always underneath our WR? The only constants are ET is always the point on top and the CBs never cross-over from their respective side. Kam runs around the middle of the triangle, like a free linebacker. Baiting the QB and jumping routes and stuffing the run, etc.
Now, we'll run a form of this triangle because that is after-all what the single high scheme is all about. But instead of a linebacker-Kam patrolling the middle we'll have agile, fast and strong nickel-DB-Ward doing whatever he wants whileEric The Angel Ried blankets the deep ball. I can't think of a defense with this capability. Think of this, the last SS capable of coming down to play the slot was John Lynch. And he wasn't all that great at it - but he was still amazing because of it. Ward is a generational football player. He's as unique because of this ability as Kam is unique because of his size in the box. But to forward the concept, I'm sorry, I have to continue to use the only other defense we have to compare it too...
Dick shuts down 1 side, on the other side seattle runs a series of zone-man schemes to confuse the offense - because if they left whoever it is over there alone like they do Dick we'd run that CB out of the NFL. Which is why most teams can't run a single high safety coverage even if they had an ET. You need a 2nd safety that can similarly dominate his position. Kam's role in the passing game is muted. He plays an area under disguise. If he's ever singled up on a receiver seattle goes to great lengths to disguise it or encourage the ball to go to another place.Kam dominates in the box. This is what makes him and seattle so special. He's an in the box safety.
What makes Kam an innovation is his size and ability to behave like an OLB, to fill run gaps or drop into short area zone. Together they are the envy of the NFL, but without ET, Kam is a poor mans' linebacker, though he fully dominates from the SS position. The NFL covets seattle's ability to play single high FS. Now they'll covet the ER Ward too because single high removes more of the offense's options to gain yards while giving the defense the added bonus of increasing their ability to disguise themselves. The disguise, in turn, exponentially improves their single high scheme, which is rock solid to begin with. Dick does contribute to the log jam on the rest of the field. With him taking one side away and ET covering everything deep, seattle is able to push all passes into a little circle to the QBs left-center. Right where Kam is standing, playing the angles and disguising his job from inside the triangular security blanket called ET. Not having to worry about deep passes or one whole side, Kam joins the bevy of defenders on the other side to create a confusing mess of zone-man schemes. This is how they bait you into the 1 thing they'll allow - a catch in exchange for a big hit by Kam. If he were smaller you could run at him, but as it is, offenses simply can't get Kam off the grass. No alignment or scheme moves him to the bench. Because ET and dick free up so many defenders, Kam can hide in pass defense. He's really just an extra guy who can't be exploited because you can't isolate him away from his buddies. The main key for the future of our defense is this: This allows seattle to look the exact same every down. This is where we are headed. Sort of. Except instead of a FS/LB running inside the triangle, we'll have a FS slash Nickel DB combo capable of locking down a slot WR and tackling the run sideline to sideline - and hopefully, be a ball hawk.
We don't have a lock down corner after Brown left - so our single high look is going to be more nebulous to compensate. But the single high look helps itself in this regard as well. Ward is going to allow our defense to do things seldom seen in the NFL.
Once he starts, Jimmy Ward is never coming off the field, IMHO.
Why is it important that Ward would never come off the field? As mentioned, this continuity exponentially increases our abilities to disguise our defense without really ever needing to change a thing to stop any offensive set or gameplan. Now, just as seattle does, because options to run or pass on us are so limited, and because we'll always look the same, we can show decoy holes to encourage offenses to do predictable things where the defense will be lying in wait.
For instance, throwing to dicks side in the last play of the season. We got them in 1:1 coverage on Crab, meaning no FS over the top. ET was in the middle and Kam was underneath him. The rest of the coverage defenders were on the other side - making a zone-man mess over there extremely hard to read. Against this defense throwing at the corner with no help over top is the simple and smart thing to do as a QB. Over here there's a cloud of pass defender's doing god knows what, so don't even look at it. It's a trap that has accounted for almost all of our interceptions against them. On the other side it's a clear and simple 1:1 with our best WR. Easy choice. You could look at it from seattle's perspective, that they cornered us into challenging dick, which is true. But that doesn't make it dumb. Just makes it great football at the highest level. Maybe next year Ellington will run an option route for us around Kam, but that's not an option we had then. Moving on...
Sorry for all the references to the prison rules team (Do you know they've had 9 PED suspensions since Pete got there? More than the rest of the NFL combined). But Ward at SS makes us pretty much the only other defense that can run these sets constantly. Our ability to run single high and keep 2 safeties on the grass always is a very hard thing to accomplish in the NFL. There aren't many teams to talk about on this topic. Takeaway: A 49ers defense that already left 95% of the NFL in the dust, just gained more separation.
Think of Ward as a combo of Donte Whitner+Tarrell Brown. Kam is like Donte Whitner+Donte Whitner. But they both allow their FS to play cover 1. This means: Less rotations. Less confusion. Less changes. More continuity. More options. More disguises. Better defense. Look at how Fangio has royally confused the best QBs in the game up to this point in a cover-2 shell, now imagine what he'll be able to do with every disguise in the book at his disposal.
Eric Reid for 16 games last year would have been right behind ET in pro bowl voting and at the top of the pack in DROY voting, but he missed a few games. For all the talk about Fangio being unwilling to play rookies, he sure loved him some ER. I suspect the same is true for Jimmy Ward. We'll put Eric in single-high and let the dudes work underneath, with Ward running around like Troy Paulamalu or somebody. Eric is prolly going to have 8 interceptions. I expect Ward to start at Nickel game 1, start at SS week 9, and win DROY honors in a tight race against Kahlil Mack. We don't need superstars at S, just dudes who do their job and play opportunistic football. That's enough to shine. If these 2 guys can get their hands on the ball it's gravy.
Only caveat being that Ward's job will be much more varied and difficult to learn than what Ried accomplished in training camp last year. Bethea is certainly very good but he's nothing special and he isn't our future. Sooner or later Ward will start at SS, and for the next decade. Until that time he'll play Nickel DB. Some here say he won't even earn that job right away.
Click on the poll to submit your vote. Don't forget, our 1st Dynasty started with a rookie DB tandem.
In the comments we can explore specifically what the ER Ward will allow Fangio to do schematically that we haven't been able to do up to this point. Cheers!