The San Francisco 49ers face a high-octane Detroit Lions passing attack this weekend, and it will put one of the 49ers more intriguing performers on the big stage. 49ers nickel back Jimmie Ward has been playing as well as anybody on the team in recent weeks, and he will face a significant matchup against Lions wide receiver Golden Tate.
Pro Football Focus sent along their weekly preview, and they are big fans of Ward's work recently. They rank him as their highest graded cornerback over the last three weeks. During that time, they have charted seven pass attempts in his direction, with three completed for ten yards allowed (10.7 QB rating). He had his pick-six, and they also have him with three run stops in that time.
Ward will have a busy day on Sunday, as he can expect to see a lot of Golden Tate in the slot. Detroit uses 3+ WR personnel 70 percent of the time, and Tate runs 58 percent of his routes from the slot. Over the last three weeks, Tate has been the Lions leading pass-catcher, with 23 receptions on 26 targets, for 186 yards and four touchdowns. Calvin Johnson has only been targeted 14 times for five receptions, 79 yards and a touchdown the last three weeks. One of the interesting stats from PFF is that over the course of this season, 21 percent of Tate's targets have been wide receiver screens. That means disciplined tackling technique is going to be critical for Ward and other 49ers defenders.
People have dogged Ward for most of the last two years, but his emergence in recent weeks has been one of the bright spots of a bad 49ers season. He gets a big matchup this weekend, and will face a tough matchup in the season finale, as I suspect he will get to face Tavon Austin with some regularity. If he can close out the season strong, that would certainly be a nice bit of momentum heading into 2016.