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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Shanahan: Jimmie Ward having ‘a little bit more fun’ playing nickel for 49ers

Nov 23, 2022 at 5:11 PM

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Since Week 7, Jimmie Ward has played 179 of his 206 defensive snaps at the nickel corner position. The versatile defensive back has proven over the years that he can play and excel at any position, and the 49ers have depended on that versatility this season.

When Emmanuel Moseley went down in Week 5 and Ward returned in Week 7, the 49ers saw an opportunity. The team had two safeties—Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson—performing at a high level. So well, Ward jokingly said, "They don't need me," last month.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan has admitted that Ward is one of his favorite players.

"Jimmie is a dog out there. We love Jimmie. I would wear his jersey on the sideline if I could," Shanahan said in 2019.

The coach joined KNBR on Wednesday afternoon and was asked how important it has been to have Ward in that slot role, closer to the line of scrimmage.

"It's awesome. Jimmie's one of the best safeties in this league, whether he's deep or whether he's up there," Shanahan responded. "But Jimmie does something in terms of coverage that he does better than every safety in this league, and that's being able to cover whoever you put him on. I truly believe Jimmie can play outside at corner, he can play nickel, and he can play safety.

"Since we've been here, just through these six years, he's been our best cover guy. So the fact that when we lost E-man, and we're down a little bit, and trying to get our best group out there, and with how good Gipson was playing, it was nothing against Jimmie. It would have been a much harder thing if we didn't have an injury. But we knew Jimmie would be our best nickel at that time, and the fact that we had someone behind Jimmie that was playing well at safety kind of got us the best of both worlds. Now, we could get him up there and do what he does so well.

"And also, I think it's a little bit more fun for him. Jimmie likes being up there in the mix. I think he gets a little bit bored back there deep. It's his style in terms of play, but it's not totally his personality. Now he's up there where he can scrap it up in the run game and get on guys in the pass game and really challenge guys."

That last part is an interesting comment. In the past, Ward has stated that he has no desire to move from the safety position.

"Safety first, and that's it," Ward said in 2020 before signing a three-year deal to return to the 49ers.

Even as recently as last month, Ward didn't sound very enthusiastic about playing nickel but was willing to do whatever was best for the team.

"I'm just going to do what the coaches tell me to do," Ward responded when asked if he felt the position move was permanent. "It's my last year on the contract. I'm just trying to be a great team player. ... It's a challenge. ... 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."

You can listen to the entire conversation with Shanahan below.

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