Now in his second NFL season, safety-cornerback Jimmie Ward showed the 49ers Sunday that he can do two things.
First, he can be a playmaker. Late in the first quarter of Sunday’s 26-20 overtime victory over the Bears in Chicago, Ward intercepted Jay Cutler and returned the ball 29 yards for a touchdown. It was Ward’s first career pick and first touchdown.
And second, he can do a great somersault, as he showed when he crossed the goal line with a flying, front-flip leap into the end zone.
After a rough first season, Ward is starting to play a bigger role in the 49ers defense this year. Sunday’s game may have been the best of Ward’s career. He also had a pass defensed against the Bears, along with being in on two tackles.
In fact, Ward (+2.4) and cornerback Kenneth Acker (+2.9) received high grades from the analytic website Pro Football Focus for their performances against the Bears.
Ward credited linebacker NaVorro Bowman for calling out that Cutler appeared to be preparing to throw a screen pass on the play where Ward made his interception.
On the play, Ward came up close to the line of scrimmage, then slipped out toward the sideline when the ball was snapped and jumped into the short screen route when the ball was thrown.
“It was just a quick screen,” Cutler told Mark Purdy of the Bay Area News Group. “If he jumps it, it’s probably going to be a pick-six. He had a good bead on it, jumped it and made a good play.”
Ward and rookie Jaquiski Tartt are getting plenty of opportunities over the second half of this season to contribute with veteran Antoine Bethea out for the year with an injury, so at least the 49ers (4-8) get a chance to see how the two safeties fit into team plans for 2016.
For the first time since being a first-round pick in 2014, Ward showed he can be a difference-maker.
San Francisco will try to keep its momentum rolling this Sunday at Cleveland when it takes on the 2-10 Browns (10 a.m. kickoff).