When you’re banged up as a team, you rely on your veterans to fill in the gap. 49ers defensive back Jimmie Ward returned to the lineup in Week 5, only to miss Week 6 after breaking his hand on the opening kickoff against the Carolina Panthers.
San Francisco has had to shuffle the deck in the secondary. Second-year cornerback Deommodore Lenoir has played in the slot and on the outside. The same is true for rookie corner Samuel Womack.
The goal is to get your best 11 players on the field. Based on how this season has gone, you’re not taking Tashaun Gipson off the field. You’re certainly not benching Talanoa Hufanga at safety. So, with an injury to starting cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, the most seamless way to insert Jimmie back into the lineup was to put him inside as the nickel cornerback.
Against Kansas City, Ward played 45 of his 56 snaps in the slot. This isn’t unfamiliar territory, as Jimmie logged 252 snaps at slot cornerback last year, 208 in 2020, and over 150 in 2019.
Unfortunately for Ward, he was welcomed back by Travis Kelce, one of the better pass-catchers in the NFL. Ward gave up 17 yards on the only target against Kelce. For the game, Ward allowed three catches in coverage for 31 yards on three targets, per Sports Info Solutions.
On Wednesday, Ward was unsure if he’d remain in the slot for the rest of the season: “I don’t know, man. I’m just going to do what the coaches tell me to do. It’s my last year on the contract. I’m just trying to be a great team player.”
Ward bringing up his contract out of left field is sure to raise eyebrows. If you look at Over the Cap, Ward’s deal voids after this season. He has no more guaranteed money left. I wonder if Ward sees the writing on the wall, especially having missed the first four weeks of the season.
The “I don’t know” counter began to add up quickly for Ward continued talking about his role:
“It’s been a while since I’ve even been on the field. I don’t know, man. It’s been a challenge, man. Like I said, it’s a challenge. Maybe if I was at safety —I don’t know — it probably would have been a challenge, too. I have no clue, man. I’ve got to just figure it out.
I don’t have any excuses or anything. I’ve just to go out there, and I’ve just got to go and play. I can’t hope for anything. I can’t wish I didn’t have a club. I can’t wish I was back at safety. So I go out there and play, man. I don’t have room to hope or wish and this and that. I’ve just got to go out there and give it my all.”
Ward saying, “maybe if I was at safety,” sounds like a player not comfortable with what he’s being asked to do. At the same time, the 49ers don’t have much of a choice, given the various injuries and youth at the position.
We’ve seen Ward succeed in coverage when he was in the slot. He was somewhat of a Cooper Kupp-stopper up until last year's final two games against the Rams. In those games, Kupp caught three passes on three targets for 50 yards, including two first downs and a touchdown.
Ward knows the challenge ahead: “It’s going to be another challenge. I’ve got a club. I’m playing nickel now. Hey man, it’s going to be a lot of work for me. So I’ll figure out and play to the best of my ability.”
That tone is 180 degrees different from the guy who was calling out Kelce this past offseason and DK Metcalf last year.
Former 49ers safety Quaski Tartt agreed with everyone’s favorite beat reporter that Ward is currently out of position: