SFU Athletics

SFU Athletics



The San Francisco 49ers coaching staff has not come out and said that free safety Jimmie Ward will not play on Sunday when the team hosts the Carolina Panthers at Levi's Stadium. However, Ward continues to be limited in practices this week with the hamstring injury that caused him to miss all of training camp.

In defensive coordinator Robert Saleh's new scheme, Ward was to be the unit's single-high safety with strong safety Eric Reid roaming closer to the line of scrimmage in run support. It's looking increasingly likely that Ward will not be healthy enough to play that role when the 49ers and Panthers kick off.

Jaquiski Tartt and rookie Lorenzo Jerome eagerly look to fill that role if Ward cannot go. The coaches are still evaluating Tartt and Jerome to see who would be the best substitute if needed.

"Both those guys will be competing," head coach Kyle Shanahan said on Wednesday. "They've got three days to do it. Depends how we use them, what packages. I'll probably have a better answer for you on Sunday."

There was nothing new to report on Thursday. Saleh told the media the team is "still working through it." The decision on who will line up at free safety could drag all the way until game day.

As for Tartt and Jerome, Saleh believes the two got enough work during organized team activities (OTAs) and training camp to get ready to face the Carolina offense.

"They're all really prepared," Saleh said. "[Defensive backs coach Jeff] Hafley does an unbelievable job preparing his guys and with our defense just because we are so in tune to making sure players are fresh. Everyone's got to know more than one position anyway so, throughout OTAs and training camp, they've been well prepared by their position coaches."

Jerome has been an offseason standout for the 49ers. He has garnered praise from the media and even general manager John Lynch, a former great safety himself who compared the rookie to Ronde Barber.

On Thursday morning, Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area joined KNBR and shared his concerns about having Jerome fill in for Ward at the free safety spot.

"As well as Lorenzo Jerome played during the exhibition season, if he's back there, I think they're vulnerable because he can kind of get out of position at times," Maiocco said. "He can bite. He can kind of think he's playing back at St. Francis where he's the best player on the field. He can jump routes and do all these things and freelance a little bit and make plays, but if he tries to do that on Sunday, if he's back there, he could be chasing somebody into the end zone."

Saleh was asked how Jerome has progressed in that aspect as the team prepares for Week 1 and an offense that, just two years ago, ranked as the top scoring offense in the league.

"His vision is expanding so he's starting to see more," Saleh said. "The more they see, the more calculated they can be. And so, with that, that's what he's starting to get better at. When you watch a guy like Earl Thomas, one play you're like, 'How did he -- he can't do that.' Then the next play he's playing the middle third and you're like, 'How does he--?' He just knows. When it's run, he's two yards in the backfield. When it's pass, he's 25 yards back playing the third. They just get to a point when they've got great play recognition. They see the big picture and they can react much faster. That's where he's getting better."

The 49ers have team practices on Thursday, Friday, and then a walk-through on Saturday. The coaching staff will likely have a good idea of Ward's status by Friday so it will be interesting to see how he is listed on the 49ers' official injury report due out that day.