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49ers’ Jimmie Ward shouldn’t play in the slot... yet

Rohan Chakravarthi
Oct 28, 2022 at 5:00 PM--

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San Francisco 49ers safety Jimmie Ward made his return from a broken hand in Week 7 against the Kansas City Chiefs, playing with a club, while manning the slot for the majority of his snaps.

Prior to his appearance in the Chiefs game, Ward had played just one snap all season. He was sidelined for the first four weeks due to a hamstring injury before suffering his broken hand on the opening kickoff against the Carolina Panthers.

Ward got a tough welcome back from the Chiefs' receiving core, as the safety gave up six catches on six attempts, including a short touchdown pass to backup tight end Justin Watson, where the veteran was simply beat off the line of scrimmage on the route.

That poses the question: should Jimmie Ward continue to play in the slot?


Looking at personnel, the 49ers have been depleted of top-end talent at the cornerback position after Emmanuel Moseley suffered a season-ending ACL tear against the Carolina Panthers, which has required them to shift nickelback Deommodore Lenoir opposite of Charvarius Ward.

Additionally, injuries to Ward and Lenoir at times have forced the 49ers to utilize backups Samuel Womack and even Ambry Thomas on the perimeter, which opponents have exploited to their benefit.

On top of that, the 49ers have quietly compiled one of the better safety tandems in the NFL in 2022, as Tashaun Gipson has been an underrated complement to rising star Talanoa Hufanga, lessening the burden of Ward's absence over the first several weeks of the year.

Still, with the factors at hand, the 49ers should not play Ward in the slot, at least not yet.

Ward's injury

Ward has elected to play through his broken hand injury by using a club on game days, similar to former 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, which is a positive as it incorporates one of San Francisco's best defensive players into the gameplan, but also a negative as the safety isn't able to utilize his hands as effectively.

Ward's been lauded as a top cover safety in the NFL, but that notion largely comes from his ability to erase opposing targets at the line of scrimmage, where his physicality and hand placement force receivers to struggle with their releases.

However, with the club, Ward couldn't use his hands nearly as effectively, and that resulted in Kansas City's wideouts having their way against the veteran safety.

While Ward was seen with the club off at practice, with the limitations in his hand placement in coverage, it's unwise to continue trotting out the 30-year-old defensive back in the nickel for significant snaps until he can return to his old self health-wise.

Additionally, Ward has been extremely effective over the past two seasons due to his versatility, as he's played at least 400 snaps in the backend, 200 snaps in the box, and 200 snaps at nickelback each year.

Providing the opportunity for Ward to maximize the entirety of his skillset by keeping him in a versatile role would not only be best for Ward, but for the defense, which would help keep opportunities in front and limit the explosive plays that hurt them a week ago.

That's not to say that Ward shouldn't see snaps in the slot, but his effectiveness would be better utilized if he was deployed in different looks, as it has over the past few weeks.

Matchup vs the Rams

Looking specifically at Week 8, the 49ers are set to face the Los Angeles Rams in a divisional matchup with potentially high playoff implications as San Francisco already defeated their division rival in a game earlier this season.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan confirmed on Friday that the team would be without starting linebacker Dre Greenlaw, which means that the 49ers are down to just Fred Warner from their trio of starters at the beginning of the season.

As a result, the 49ers could deploy more nickel packages, similar to what they did in Week 4 when they defeated the Rams, which would involve an extra defensive back on the field.

Talanoa Hufanga could be best served seeing more snaps near the box, while Ward and Gipson could man the backend, with their traits and instincts coming in handy.

The 49ers will be facing top slot receiver Cooper Kupp, which may prompt more snaps from Jimmie Ward in the slot, but San Francisco's main priority must be to limit the Rams to shorter passes and disrupt their offensive game flow.

Kupp had 14 catches for 122 yards in Week 4, but that performance led to a mere nine points from the Los Angeles offense as the 49ers limited the Rams offense to field goals and pressured Matthew Stafford 34 times.

Jason Verrett's presence should allow for more slot action to Deommodore Lenoir, alleviating pressure off of Jimmie Ward, but until fully healthy, the veteran safety should be played in a role in which he's most comfortable.

Ward didn't seem enthusiastic about the move to the slot when asked about it earlier this week, instead saying that he's in the final year of his contract and wants to be a team player.

"I don't know, man," Ward responded to the question. "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 even alluded to potentially preferring the safety position, but acknowledged it was out of his control.

"It's been a while since I've even been on the field," Ward responded, somewhat joking but knowing it was a true statement. "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."

However, regardless of what should happen, it appears that Ward will line up at nickel for at least a portion of Sunday's game as he acknowledged his current situation ahead of Week 8 against the Rams.

"It's going to be another challenge," Ward shared. "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 it out and play to the best of my ability."
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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