SANTA CLARA – In the 49ers' season opener on Monday, Jimmie Ward was forced back into the nickel role he held in his first two NFL seasons.
Although 49ers defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil prefers not to move a starting cornerback inside to cover the slot receiver in passing situations, Ward's performance might give him reason to reconsider.
"That's something in the past, with me coach-wise, that's been very hard for guys to do," O'Neil said. "Jimmie is a rare guy and he wants to do that. I prefer to just keep him on the outside and let him, put him on an island out there and let him go.
"But, he did a really good job and when Chris (Davis) went down last week and we needed him to do it, he didn't bat an eye at it."
Davis was projected to be the 49ers' nickel back. But he did not practice last week and was unavailable to play in the season opener against the Los Angeles Rams due to a hamstring injury. Davis was back in a limited role in practice Wednesday, as the 49ers began preparations to face the Carolina Panthers.
Ward said moving back to the slot felt natural and he is open to carrying out whatever duties the coaches decide for him. In the opener, Ward played 28 snaps in the slot, according to Pro Football Focus. The Rams targeted him on three of those plays, leading to just one Tavon Austin reception for five yards.
"We got a couple guys who can play different roles in the defense," Ward said. "Whatever coach needs me to play, that's where I'm going to play. That's his perspective on what he wants the corner to be, whether he wants him to be a full-time corner. If that's what he wants me to play, then I'll play it. But if he wants me to move inside, I'll move inside."
Ward started his first game at cornerback on Monday night, and performed well in his new role after being a backup safety and primary nickel back after joining the team as a first-round pick in 2014. He said it was "pretty cool" to go back and watch film and study himself as a cornerback.
"I always look at my technique," he said. "I look at the negative plays. I don't think too much about the positive plays because I'm always thinking about how I can get better each day."
There was not much negative to identify from his opener, though both O'Neil and Ward pointed to some minor technique issues that need to be cleaned up.