Fixing a Hole Where the Passes Get Through: Ward Returns to Cornerback
The Wolf: You're... Jimmie, right? This is your house?
Jimmie: Sure is.
The Wolf: I'm Winston Wolfe. I solve problems.
Jimmie: Good, we got one.
Without question, the San Francisco 49ers faced formidable issues at cornerback last season. Indeed, the team’s struggle was a well-known fact in dozens of other worlds that span the 28 known galaxies.
Injuries, mixed with a lack of All-Pro talent, tossing rookies into the starting line-up alongside two or three players with no business in the NFL caused many fans to curse, “Who blew that coverage? Who? Where’d he come from?”
All is not lost though, Fellow Fan, as the 49ers’ pass defense was not as hapless and atrocious as it appeared. Here are a few quick comparisons:
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers allowed 67.5% completion percentage and had league-worst statistics in pass yards allowed (4,169) and in net yards per pass attempt (7.3). The 49ers gave up 3,764 yards through the air, allowed 344 completed passes on 544 attempts (63.2 completion percentage), and 6.6 net yards per pass attempt.
The New England Patriots, the litmus test for nearly all things football, let quarterbacks complete 62.2% of their passes and gave up 23 more completed passes than the 49ers.
The Philadelphia Eagles gave up 24 passing touchdowns, three fewer than the 49ers.
These numbers are not to provide excuses for the 49ers, but rather for the collective fan base to realize what the team accomplished with a hobbled, piecemeal unit and sub-par talent.
Alas, the statistics and numbers are not the issues. All professional football teams suffer from a lack of talent and/or depth at some position, a problem each general manager must solve.
So, the Great Triumvirate of general manager John Lynch, head coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh are doing what any franchise does in the offseason: They are trying players at different positions.
“But part of the plan is to stick him (Jimmie Ward) over there at outside corner, Jimmie, and let's see what we have there, and I think to give him some time in the offseason,” Lynch told beat writer Matt Maiocco on the March 27, 2018 edition of the 49ers Insider Podcast.
The initial plan sounded like a desperate reach from Lynch, but Ward has played corner for the 49ers before.
I watched tape of Ward playing both left and right cornerback during a 2016 Week 3 match-up against the Seattle Seahawks. While Ward only played 25 snaps due to a quadriceps strain he suffered covering a kick, he had no fundamental issues playing corner.
We could quickly get into every small nuance of Ward’s game – he’s a little flat-footed on out-breaking routes – but he played well and opened the game with a pass break-up. He reads patterns well, and kept up with opponents on skinny posts, vertical routes and drags. I have no doubt Saleh can plug Ward in at cornerback and feel comfortable with the decision.
However, Ward has two challenges to make a permanent move to cornerback.
First, as hinted at above, Ward is injury prone.
In four seasons, Ward has suited up for 42 out of 64 possible games. 2015 was the only season where Ward dressed for all 16 games.
Ward’s injuries are not the type that sideline him for a game or that heal quickly. In 2014 he went on season-ending injured reserve with a foot injury. He did finally get over the nagging quadriceps injury during the 2016 season but ended up finishing the year on injured reserve due to a fractured clavicle.
Last season, Ward injured his hamstring during a training camp conditioning test. Hamstrings are kind of important as a defensive back; moreover, straining a hamstring during a conditioning test makes me question how much off-season work he put in before July.
He was in the starting line-up by Week 2 but ended up on injured reserve on November 1 after suffering a fractured forearm.
Ward’s second challenge is finding out where his talent level lies, which is unclear after four seasons of pro football. Thus far, Ward hasn’t wowed anyone with his play. Sure, he’s had his moments, but his career numbers are lackluster: two interceptions, 21 passes defended and 134 tackles, which is slightly more than three tackles per game. Ward hasn’t played a game where he completely shut down a receiver or was a tidal wave of ferocious sound and fury in the secondary.
I despise off-season absolutes from fans and professional football writers, but I guess my hypocrisy knows no bounds. The 2018 season is a make-or-break one for Ward, no matter if he plays 16 games at cornerback or 16 games at safety.
I appreciate the 49ers looking inward to find solutions to problems, even if Ward has hit his professional football ceiling. Moving Ward to cornerback makes much more sense than relying on cast off players like Leon Hall or Greg Mabin to conjure unknown, mystical magic that helps lead the secondary back to the glory days of Dwight Hicks and the Hot Licks.