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It took awhile, but Jimmie Ward has finally gotten some credit for his relatively thankless role in the back end of a 49ers defense that’s defined by its front seven.
Ward, a year after not landing in the NFL Wire’s list of the 11 best safeties in the NFL, found himself at No. 4 in this year’s expanded 13-player list. It was his remarkable coverage numbers that facilitated his rapid rise. Via Doug Farrar:
Over time, Ward has transitioned from a slot/box defender to more of a pure free safety — last season, he had 652 snaps at free, 270 in the box, and 252 in the slot — and 2021 marked his best season to date in that particular role. Ward allowed 23 catches on 41 targets for 298 yards, 75 yards after the catch, one touchdown, three interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 56.8. That’s far better than in any other season in his career — Ward’s opponent passer rating of 102.5 in 2015 was his previous best.
Last season Ward finally filled up the interception category with three takeaways after not having one since 2016. He posted two against the Rams on Monday Night Football in Week 10, then had another at the goal line in the NFC championship game. Pulling down INTs is a great way for a defensive back to garner recognition.
What’s really separated Ward over his tenure as the 49ers’ free safety though is his range and strong tackling. He has just 18 missed tackles in his eight seasons and has never had more than four in a year per PFF. His tackling grade has been above 90.0 in three of the last four seasons as well. His ability to make stops in the open field is a huge reason the 49ers rarely allow big plays down the field, and why their defense gave up just three TDs of more than 30 yards in 2021.
There may be safeties that deliver more highlight-reel hits or haul in more interceptions, but there aren’t many safeties that impact games as regularly and in as many ways as Ward does.