With a tick over 10 minutes to play in the opening quarter of Sunday’s blowout defeat in Seattle, the San Francisco 49ers surrendered the first of three unanswered Seahawks’ touchdowns, effectively putting the contest out of reach before the conclusion of the first half. Jimmie Ward, the 49ers’ 2014 first-round pick, matched up in press-man coverage over Tyler Lockett, the Seahawks’ 2015 third-round pick, in the slot on the outskirts of the red zone. Lockett made a quick move to the outside, causing Ward’s jam attempt to find nothing but air. That was all it took for Lockett to gain separation upfield on his seam route, and a perfectly placed pass by Russell Wilson sealed the deal.
For many ready to attach the "bust" label to Ward after only 18 games, this play was a microcosm of the young defensive back’s career. In reality, it was the first reception of over 20 yards Ward had allowed all year (Unless otherwise stated, all of the numbers in this article come via my charting through the first nine games of the season. Determining who is "responsible" for a given reception is a tricky, and subjective, process at times. Because of that, the numbers here will surely differ some from other charting numbers out there).
And that’s really been the biggest issue with Ward through just over one full season of appearances — a few high-profile screw-ups have masked otherwise solid, if unspectacular, play from the slot cornerback position. Last year, it was Brandon Marshall out-muscling Ward to the tune of three touchdowns in his second career game. Now, it’s Ward getting embarrassed at the line of scrimmage by a rookie wideout on the 49ers’ biggest rival.
The other half of the equation is a lack of splashy plays to offset the big plays he’s allowed. Many hoped (myself included) that he would be able to fill a Tyrann Mathieu-type role in San Francisco’s secondary. From purely an assignment standpoint, we’ve seen some of that from Ward this year, but the playmaking hasn’t come with it. He’s yet to record an interception or a forced fumble to this point in his career. Though he’s been a frequent blitzer from the slot this season, there haven’t been any sacks either.
When we move beyond plays at either extreme, you won’t find a more consistent cover-man in the 49ers’ secondary. On 27 non-screen targets entering the bye week (I haven’t had an opportunity to chart the Seahawks game yet, so the numbers mentioned throughout the article will exclude that game), Ward is allowing 4.89 yards per attempt, the lowest figure among San Francisco defensive backs.
Part of that has to do with Ward’s role in the slot — his 5.11 average air yards per target is also the lowest among 49ers defensive backs. Prior to the Lockett reception, only three passes into Ward’s coverage had traveled more than 10 yards in the air. As you would expect from those numbers, Ward sees a lot of short routes. Slants, drags, outs, and flat routes comprise nearly 75 percent of Ward’s targets. He’s not getting his hands on too many of those passes, but he’s consistently in position to either contest the reception or make the tackle without yielding many yards after the catch.
One of the best examples of Ward’s knack for being in the right place came on a crucial third-down play late in the fourth quarter against the Falcons. Ward is matched up one-on-one with wideout Justin Hardy to the trips side of the field, and Atlanta is looking to get Hardy the ball on a pick play to beat San Francisco’s blitz. With the 49ers pressing the No. 1 and No. 3 receivers (count outside in), Ward sinks back to the goal line, anticipating some sort of pick concept. When Hardy breaks inside, Ward is able to drive on the route without having to sift through traffic and makes what turned out to be a game-saving tackle short of the goal line.
They don’t always come in big moments like the play above, but that’s typically what you get from Ward on those shorter routes he often sees. Smart, assignment-sound coverage that isn’t very flashy, but limits big plays after the catch.
Scheme also plays a role in Ward’s coverage numbers. As I discussed last week, the 49ers have played a bunch of Cover 3 this season, which leaves Ward passing off a lot of vertical routes to his teammates in deeper zones. As a result, there are several plays where it appears Ward is the primary defender on a route, but is actually responsible for an underneath zone.
In those Cover 3 zones, Ward is typically responsible for the curl-flat area. Part of his job is to re-route the slot receiver on any vertical releases. This is crucial on routes up the seam, as it makes life easier for the cornerback and safety to fill a natural void in the coverage. Generally, the 49ers have done a poor job in this respect, contributing to the gaudy yardage numbers they’ve allowed in the middle of the field. Ward, however, consistently prevents that slot receiver from getting a clean release into those voids over the middle.
Ward is aligned in the slot over Giants wideout Dwayne Harris. New York has a four verticals concept called, which puts Harris’s landmark between the hashmarks and the numbers. But as you can see, Ward forces Harris wide of the numbers before settling into his zone responsibility, which gives Tramaine Brock the ability to play both vertical routes to that side of the field. Ward’s re-routes aren’t always quite that effective, but he alters the release of the slot receiver more often than any other 49ers defender.
Where Ward falls short is where his physical limitations catch up to him. He can struggle with physical receivers on the inside, like we saw when Brandon Marshall got a hold of him last year. But he also doesn’t quite have the speed to track the more fleet-footed receivers across the field in man coverage, as you can see on the following play in which Steve Smith is able to get separation on a drag route for a first-down reception:
Though he’s held his own against some of the better slot receivers he’s faced this season, most notably against Randall Cobb, those physical limitations — not quite big enough to handle the physical receivers, not quite fast enough to stick with the speedsters — will likely prevent Ward from becoming a top-flight slot cornerback. But in most situations, he’s currently the best option the 49ers have at the position.
There is reason to be optimistic about Ward’s prospects as a safety, particularly if the 49ers plan on sticking with the single-high safety approach they’ve favored for most of 2015. His physical limitations wouldn’t be as big of a deal at safety, where he’d actually be an above average athlete, and the role would play more to his strengths. In fact, the closest Ward has gotten to picking off a pass this season came on one of the few snaps he’s lined up at safety:
This issue right now is, obviously, opportunity. Barring injury, it’s unlikely we’ll see Ward at safety as long as Eric Reid is around. Reid is under contract through 2016, and his $2.7 million cap figure next year is fully guaranteed, per Over The Cap. Few things would really surprise me with this team anymore, but it’s hard to see the 49ers moving on from Reid before the end of his rookie contract.
Until then, we’re likely to see Ward continue in his current role as the team’s primary slot cornerback. You can question whether the lack of splashy, impact plays on his résumé at that position makes him unworthy of the first round selection San Francisco used on him, but it’s far too early to toss around words like "bust," especially when his overall level of play hasn’t been nearly as bad as many would like to believe.