49ers' evolving nickel back situation will be tested as defense thrives

49ers' evolving nickel back situation will be tested as defense thrives originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

SANTA CLARA — It will take multiple players to replace former 49ers nickel back Jimmie Ward this season.

At least that is how it appeared for the 49ers in their Week 1 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Acrisure Stadium.

“The season is so long, so I don't want to wait until something happens to try to get someone ready,” 49ers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said Thursday.

“So it's always that constant trying to evolve and try to get guys prepared whether I can steal a series here or there.”

The 49ers opened the game with Charvarius Ward and Deommodore Lenoir as their starting cornerbacks.

When the Steelers went with three wide receivers, Lenoir dropped to nickel back to cover the slot receiver and Ambry Thomas entered the game at cornerback.

In the second half, Ward and Lenoir remained outside on all downs and Isaiah Oliver subbed onto the field as the nickel back.

Coach Kyle Shanahan said it was not the plan entering the game to change the 49ers’ defensive personnel groupings.

“Things dictate the change,” he said. “We thought they'd all play in the game, but stuff happened in the game that had us adjust.”

Shanahan declined to reveal what caused the 49ers to go with Oliver at nickel back in the second half.

“(That’s) stuff that's between me and our team,” he said. “Just watch the film. You might be able to figure it out. Stuff I can't say, sorry.”

In the first half, Lenoir gave up three receptions on four targets from the slot for just 23 yards, per PFF. Oliver surrendered catches on all three targets for 25 yards in the second half.

Thomas played 34 snaps at cornerback. Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett targeted him six times, and five of those passes were completed for 32 yards.

“I thought he played well,” Wilks said of Thomas. “I thought he did some good things. I'm not all about the production and guys look for the stats and whatnot. I look for guys executing and doing their job, working their technique based off the call and the situation. And I thought within the defense he did that.”

The 49ers’ Week 1 defense was dominant, other than a lapse at the end of the first half, when the Steelers drove for their only touchdown of the game.

But the 49ers' pass defense was about as good as it can get. The 49ers forced Pickett to throw underneath. He averaged a lowly 5.0 yards per pass attempt.

The 49ers’ nickel back configuration figures to be tested Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams.

Although the Rams will be playing without star slot receiver Cooper Kupp (hamstring), they still have a speedy playmaker in Tutu Atwell, who caught four passes from the slot for 60 yards in the Rams’ upset victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the regular-season opener.

Atwell and rookie Puka Nacua had 119 receiving yards apiece. Nacua's status is in question after he missed practice Thursday with an oblique strain.

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