Shanahan explains why Ward, Gipson will stay in current roles originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
Programming note: Matt Maiocco's full interview with Kyle Shanahan airs at 4:30 p.m. PT on Saturday during "49ers Game Plan" on NBC Sports Bay Area.
AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — As long as Tashaun Gipson is around, it does not appear as if Jimmie Ward will regain his starting job at free safety for the 49ers.
Gipson has taken over Ward’s role as the starter alongside second-year strong safety Talanoa Hufanga.
Ward still sees plenty of playing time, but he is now entrenched as the 49ers' nickel back. He remains on the sideline any time the opposition has its base offense on the field.
“I love the roles they’re in right now,” coach Kyle Shanahan said on "49ers Game Plan."
Ward sustained a hamstring injury during training camp that prevented him from opening the season on the active roster.
The 49ers were pleased with Deommodore Lenoir at the nickel back. But adjustments were required when starting cornerback Emmanuel Moseley sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week 5 against Carolina.
“Once we lost E-Man, Demo was our next corner on the outside,” Shanahan said. “So the only way that allowed us to do that was to find a really good nickel. And that was the week that Jimmie came back.
“So it made a lot of sense to ease him into that role at nickel. Since I’ve been here, I feel Jimmie has been our best cover guy.”
Ward has always been the defensive back the club relied on in key situations to help in coverage against top-flight slot receivers, such as the Rams’ Cooper Kupp, or dangerous tight ends.
“We called him a safety, but on third downs he played like a nickel,” Shanahan said.
Gipson appears to better at recognizing route combinations in the middle of the field and generating takeaways. In 149 career games during his 11-year career, Gipson has 28 interceptions, including one this season. Meanwhile, Ward has just four interceptions in 98 career games over nine seasons.
Gipson’s play has allowed the 49ers the luxury of inserting Ward into the spot on the 49ers’ defense that would have been Its most significant weakness.
“For him (Gipson) to come in and play at such a high level allows us to use Jimmie at something that he does that no one on our team does as good as him,” Shanahan said. “It has really helped us.”
Shanahan considers Ward as an integral starting player, though that is not how he is listed in the team’s base defense. He points out that most offenses the 49ers face line up with three wide receivers, which requires Ward’s presence on the field more often than not.
Ward’s new role comes at a time when he is in his contract year. But Shanahan said he believes the veteran is showcasing his value this season more than ever.
“I think it’s been a good thing for Jimmie,” Shanahan said. “Everyone in this league knows how well he can play safety, but what he’s doing right now is what separates from the rest of the people in this league.”