Diagnosis of struggling Jimmie Ward through two 49ers 2018 preseason games

The San Francisco 49ers knew there was a chance free-agent signee Richard Sherman wouldn’t be 100 percent healed from his Achilles injury that sidelined him almost half of the 2017 season. Sherman has missed the first two games of preseason, so the 49ers turned to fifth-year defensive back Jimmie Ward to play cornerback opposite Ahkello Witherspoon. In Ward’s first four NFL seasons, he had four different head coaches and four different defensive schemes. He also played several different positions in the secondary. For the first time in Ward’s career he gets the opportunity to play for the same coaches in the same system for consecutive seasons. Unfortunately for Ward, he’d once again be switching positions. This time making the switch from deep free safety, back to outside cornerback.

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The Seattle Seahawks’ Cover 3 scheme has the reputation for carrying much larger outside cornerbacks than the 5-foot-10 and a half, 193-pound Ward – but with his athleticism the 49ers figured it would be a smooth transition for Ward to fill in at the new position until All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman was ready to go. At the start of training camp, Sherman and Ward rotated every two plays with the first group. A hamstring injury set Sherman back and created an opportunity for Ward to get all of the first-team reps heading into the Week 1 preseason match up against the Dallas Cowboys. On the first drive of the game, the Cowboys marched down the field and ended the drive on a 30-yard completion from Dak Prescott to rookie Michael Gallup that resulted in a touchdown. On this play, like many others, Ward initially has tight coverage but just has not been able to finish the play. Initially Ward was in perfect position, but as he turned to get his head around, he stopped. I'd love to hear an explanation for this mess up, but if I had to guess I’d say he either didn’t think the ball was coming his way or he thought the play was over. Either way, play through the whistle, kids.

Ward was targeted twice in two drives against the Cowboys. The second target resulted in a first down on 3rd and 4. This time it was Allen Hurns who beat Ward. Again, initially great coverage. He got as good of a jam on a receiver as you can get, and remained on Hurns' hip throughout the route, but unfortunately he was not able stop Hurns from catching the ball and coming up with the first down.

Ward looked to redeem himself against the Houston Texans and it started on the practice field in a joint session. On the very first rep of 1s on 1s, Ward and All-Pro receiver DeAndre Hopkins got into a physical altercation, landing them both on the sideline for the rest of practice. That happened to be the only battle Ward won. During Saturday’s game, Houston quarterbacks targeted Ward four times, completing three attempts for first downs with the only incompletion being a Bruce Ellington drop.

On 3rd and 5, the Texans motioned Ellington to the right side of the formation creating a bunch. There are a few ways to guard this depending on the coverage. But here it looks like the 49ers ran what I call “13."

In 13, one player mans up in press on the point man. The back two defenders combo the back two (1 and 3 receivers) in the bunch. Right away the point man released right and the furthest outside guy in the bunch ran a shallow crosser leaving one guy left (Ellington) for Ward. The Texans ran a concept that’s difficult on the outside corner because it widens him out enough to create space and come back underneath. When the 49ers scheme for teams in the regular season this is less likely to come open, but in the preseason against an inexperienced Ward, it was the perfect play call to pick up the first down in a short yardage situation.

Cornerback is a position of inches. A missed step here and there can be the real difference between being the hero or getting scrutinized by media. Throughout preseason Ward has had his fair share of the latter. But is there hope for Ward? I believe so. As I mentioned before, his initial coverage has been good. Finishing has been the issue. Playing the cornerback position is a lot about feel. Having a feel for the timing of routes and understanding just how receivers are trying to attack you.

That’s the part of the position Ward is still trying to figure out. On 3rd and 6, San Francisco put Ward in man coverage on Texans speedster Sammie Coates. In practice, the 49ers use an upfield shoulder technique that’s taught to keep the play in front of you. Unfortunately in short-yardage situations that leaves you vulnerable to comebacks and underneath routes. Here Ward actually plays the technique how it’s taught to them but struggles to get out of his break and doesn’t challenge the receiver who easily picks up the first down.

Ward catches/yards (2018 Exhibition vs. Dallas and Houston)

Week 1: Gallup 30-yard TD

Week 1: Hurns 13-yard slant on 3rd and 4

Week 2: Ellington 7 yards on 3rd and 5 (combo)

Week 2: Ellington drop pass

Week 2: Coates 15-yard catch sideline

Week 2: Coates 8 yards on 3rd and 6

Total: 6 targets, 5 catches, 73 yards, 1 TD

If I had any suggestions for Ward I would simply tell him to challenge himself. At some point you have to make a play. Witherspoon has been targeted four times giving up one catch for 10 yards, and even on that one catch he was in position to play through the receiver's hands. Witherspoon looks for more comfortable this season and is challenging himself, which in turn puts him in position to make plays. With Sherman returning and rookie third-round draft pick Tarvarius Moore coming on strong, a big week in practice going into the dress rehearsal game against the Indianapolis Colts would be huge for both Jimmie Ward's confidence and the team's confidence in him.

Media courtesy AP Images, NFL

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