After going three-and-out, Sam Howell scored on two consecutive drives. Thanks to a blown-up play on 3rd & 1, Washington punted on their first possession of the third quarter after Clelin Ferrell chased Howell out of bounds for a sack and a loss of six.
But Washington converted a 2nd & 20 on their next drive. Then they allowed back to back Antonio Gibson carries of 15 and 16 yards. At this point, the score was 20-10 and the Commanders were guaranteed to get points out of another trip inside the red zone.
During the first half, Commanders offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy doesn’t hide where wide receiver Terry McLaurin will line up. Against the 49ers, 87 percent of McLaurin’s snap came out wide at receiver. Yet, defensive coordinator Steve Wilks was reluctant to have Ward shadow McLaurin.
The 49ers paid for it early on as McLaurin caught a 42-yard pass against Deommodore Lenoir. He also beat Lenoir for another first down. On the three-yard line, McLaurin caught a back shoulder fade against Ambry Thomas for a touchdown.
Those results forced Wilks’ hand into having Mooney follow McLaurin. And, on his one true target against him, Ward showed up when his team needed him the most:
Intercepting a pass on 3rd & 8 when your opponent has a chance to come away with points on the drive is the optimal outcome. Everything about that play highlights why Ward’s skill set fits the mold of the 49ers culture.
A couple of weeks ago, we saw Ward reach 20 miles per hour running after intercepting Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray. That was one of the fastest times that Next Gen Stats has tracked this season for a defensive player with the ball in their hands.
Speed is far from an issue. Ward’s size is one of his greatest strengths. He’s 6-foot-1, 200 pounds. That puts him in the 90th percentile among cornerbacks. Add in his 32 1/4” arm length — that puts Ward in the 80th percentile — and you have a cornerback with elite size and speed.
Mentality matters on defense. Nick Bosa and Dre Greenlaw are the first players who come to mind when I think about the intent that the Niners want to play with. Ward, a defensive back, isn’t far behind.
On his interception above, Ward fought through contact and held on to the ball. He hasn’t shied away from contact all season. Ward is in the top 15 in tackles and run stops — a tackle that constitutes as a loss for the offense — among all cornerbacks.
Versatility is necessary on defense. After Week 17, Ward told reporters that Wilks made an adjustment defensively to throw Howell off: “Early in the game we ran a lot of man. Coach Wilks changed a bit, and we played a lot of zone, but he made it look like man — I think that was a big adjustment.”
The best defenses in the NFL have these rare athletes and use them as chess pieces to keep opposing offenses out of rhythm for four quarters. Ward is the chess piece in the 49ers secondary that allows Wilks to bounce back and forth between coverages.
According to Sports Info Solutions, the 49ers are running zone coverage 67 percent of the time — the eighth-highest rate in the NFL. But Wilks will have a single-high safety 40 percent of the time and two high safeties 47 percent of the time.
You can’t get away with playing two high safeties that often unless you have cornerbacks who can tackle and at least one cornerback who can take away a quarter of the field. That’s what Ward’s been doing for the 49ers since their bye week.
He’s blossomed into the star the Niners had hoped for when they inked Ward to a deal that would pay him north of $16 million in 2023. I asked Kyle Shanahan what the challenges are when you go against a defense that has a corner who can erase that much of the field:
“Yeah, when you need to avoid a corner and when you’re always trying to think about attacking coverages, pressures, how to get rid of the ball, how to help people get open, but then you’ve got to think of a player to avoid, that always makes it much harder.”
Teams are going out of their way to avoid Mooney. He hasn’t been targeted more than four times in the previous four games. The game he was thrown at four times was in Week 15 against Arizona, and he caught two more passes from Murray than he allowed.
But even against teams that were trailing all game and were forced to throw on every down didn’t have success against Ward. During the three-game stretch from Week 11 through Week 14 — this is against three playoff contenders, mind you — Ward was targeted 30 times, but only allowed 15 receptions. He got his hands on nine of those passes and didn’t allow a touchdown.
Teams are learning the hard way that No. 7 is not the cornerback to try. Howell attempted 28 passes and outside of a quick screen pass, looked at Ward once. We saw the result above.
Ward showed signs of promise with the Chiefs. Steve Spagnulo asked him to predominantly be a press man corner. Mooney’s role has expanded in the Bay Area, and we’ve seen his game grow as a result.
Here’s Shanahan answering my follow-up question to him, on if the expectation was that Ward would hit his stride in Year 2:
“But yeah, Mooney’s playing like we hoped he would. Just studying him at Kansas City, we thought he was one of the better corners in the League.
Going against him there in the Super Bowl and then being able to watch him the next couple years on tape we feel like he’s kind of always played like this. He works at it. I think the more you work at it, the better you get.
Once he got a couple picks, now they’ve all started sticking to his hands. So he is just getting more and more each week. I couldn’t be more happy with Mooney. He’s an awesome dude, and he is playing with a lot of confidence right now, as he should be.”
If you parse through cornerback numbers, you’ll come away even more impressed with Ward’s season. No player has been targeted more in 2023, yet Mooney only has committed defensive pass interference three times for a total of 31 yards.
Despite being the most targeted player in the league, Mooney is seventh in the NFL in deserved catch percentage, which is a metric tracked by Sports Info Solutions that measures “the percentage of targets as the primary defender that the receiver either caught or dropped the ball when the pass was catchable.”
What Ward is doing this season is nothing short of sensational. Fred Warner believes Mooney has done enough to be recognized as an All-Pro: “I’m so happy for him. He fully deserves to be an All-Pro this year, and I’m sure he’ll be a Pro-Bowler as well.”
Ward is playing on one of the better defenses in the NFL on one of the best teams in the league. He leads the league in pass breakups and is second in interceptions.
He’s been consistent all season and has taken on the challenge of shadowing the opponents’ top targets from Week 10 on. I’d argue that Ward is as much of an All-Pro as any other player on the 49ers defense.