The San Francisco 49ers defense was the story of the day last week against the Green Bay Packers, and it was the young talent stepping up to a certain extent. While Aaron Lynch had three QB hits and a slightly more high profile pair of sacks, Jimmie Ward quietly put together another strong outing. He is not quite the high profile player you'd look for in a first round pick, but he is showing improvement. I suppose expectations were lowered after that Brandon Marshall game, but improvement is improvement.
Ward spent much of the day covering Randall Cobb. The Packers receiver was limited to five receptions for 44 yards, and kept out of the end zone. Given Cobb's prolific pass-catching, that was a very solid game. And through four games, Ward has become more and more active on defense. He played 13 snaps in Week 1, 27 in Week 2, 14 in Week 3, and then 62 in Week 4. The Packers play a lot of three and four receiver sets, and so the 49ers spent much of the game in nickel and dime packages.
Pro Football Focus passed along some statistics regarding Ward in the slot. When covering the slot receiver, Ward is allowing 0.73 receiving yards/coverage snap (t-12th best of 46 CBs) and a reception per 12.6 coverage snaps (10th of 46 CBs).
The 49ers face a Giants team that runs 75 percent of their offense out of 3-WR sets. That likely means another busy day for Ward. He will get some time against Odell Beckham, Jr., who has spent 25 percent of his snaps in the slot. But Ward will be busy against several receivers, so he will face a variety of challenges.
Defensive coordinator Eric Mangini and Jim Tomsula both were effusive in their praise of Ward's development. Mangini's comments were interesting in discussing how much time Ward puts in to film study and understanding his techniques and roles. People want bigger things early on from first round picks, and that is entirely understandable. But he appears to be making progress, and that is a good thing.
Here is what Mangini had to say on Thursday:
What was it about last game that prompted DB Jimmie Ward to get on the field more than he had in the previous three games?
"We have not, whether it's any of the young players, they've all done some good things. You saw [CB] Keith Reaser played a little bit last week. We've got a lot of different guys that we want to play. We want to play in packages and some of the packages you'll see [S] Jaquiski [Tartt] in more just because that's what we're getting offensively. Sometimes it will be Jimmie. Sometimes we'll more [CB] Tramaine [Brock] back in there. Really happy with Jimmie. We've been happy with Jimmie since he's been back and getting to know him. But, it'll fluctuate too week-in and week-out."
That's a pretty tough assignment he had for most of that game.
"He had a really tough assignment. And like I said I'm getting to know more because he missed the time that he had, the early part. Really like his approach, his work ethic. Jimmie is a guy that we go through the game plan and I know on some of the road games, he'll be up sitting with [secondary coach] Tim Lewis and want to go through everything again, even if he knows it because he wants to be right. He wants to make sure that he's got every one of his assignments down. It's a great quality, great quality that he has. Tough, tough, gives us some real pluses in the running game, being down there and that spot inside, that's a hard spot. Because, there's so much happening, you have run-pass reads, you have communication with the safeties, you've got communication with the linebackers and he's handled all that stuff really well."
Are you saying that on the flights to road games he's up with Tim Lewis going over--?
"Yes, sometimes he's up there or he's in his office. He's going to make sure he's got it all down and you love that about him. And then, sometimes you know he's got it all down, but it's checking that list off a couple different times. Really, really great trait from a young player."
Here is what Jim Tomsula had to say on Friday:
DB Jimmie Ward played obviously quite a bit and played pretty well Sunday. Was he at a point I guess in Week 4 where health-wise he was good or, I guess what I'm asking is, how come he didn't play as much in the first three games and he had a pretty prominent role last week?
"Yeah well, I mean, Jimmie too, again, coming through some stuff. He's moving around really well. So, that was it. Jimmie, we've always, I don't think anybody here has questioned the way Jimmie works or what we see as Jimmie's ability and things like that. Jimmie's a fun player to watch because he's so, his passion just screams in the way he's flying around on the field. And he's still a young player. So, young players are learning. But, Jimmie's, he's in the coach's hip all the time. He's constantly, he's just one of those guys there's an energy about him."