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49ers vs. Ravens: Cornerback, nickel back position battle will be worth a watch

The 49ers head to Baltimore to face the Ravens on Thursday, and they have some big questions to answer in their secondary. The cornerback and nickel back positions might get some clarification on Thursday.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio met with the media Sunday afternoon following the team's practice session, and he had some comments about the nickel back competition. The competition primarily features Perrish Cox, Jimmie Ward, and Darryl Morris, but injuries have shuffled around some of the opportunities. And this competition has been impacted by the order of the outside cornerback competition.

In recent days, Perrish Cox has been getting first team work opposite Chris Culliver. Tramaine Brock is dealing with an undisclosed injury that Fangio said was not too serious. Previously, Brock and Culliver handled first team cornerback work, and Perrish Cox was serving as the first team nickel back. The second team consisted of Chris Cook and Dontae Johnson outside, and Jimmie Ward inside.

According to the various practice reports, Cook has focused on just the left cornerback work behind Culliver. On Monday, Culliver sat out practice because of some injury issue (sounded mild), and Cook took his spot opposite Perrish Cox with the first team defense. You are obviously dealing with a different point of view of the rest of the field based on which side you're on, but from a technique standpoint, I don't know enough to declare why he would only focus on one side of the field. If anybody else has a better idea, feel free to let us know in the comments.

The "upside", if you will, to Brock's injury is that it gets Ward in as the first team nickel back in practice. When the 49ers face the Ravens later this week, if Brock does not play, Ward will probably get the first team nickel work. I'd imagine he will also get a good deal of second team work. If Brock is not playing, it will be interesting to see how the 49ers rotate Perrish Cox. They know what he can do as a slot corner, so do they just focus him on the outside work? Or, do they occasionally move in Dontae Johnson opposite Chris Culliver, and get Cox some nickel work with those two (or Johnson and Cook, for that matter).

We won't get any final answers on Thursday, but if Ward can impress, it would be a big step forward. He's going to get plenty of nickel time in the preseason, so every strong performance will boost that opportunity to be the starting nickel back come Week 1 of the regular season.

As far as the outside cornerbacks are concerned, this game means as much to Chris Cook's roster chances as it does any of the other cornerbacks. It sounds like he has done some solid work in training camp, and has put in work with Ed Donatell and the quarterbacks to work on picking up the ball down the field. On Thursday, we'll get our first chance to see whether or not this translates to game action. He has zero interceptions in his regular season career, so if he can potentially grab an interception or two this preseason, or at least show he can track the ball down the field, it will go a long way toward a roster spot.