Niners' Ward Playing a Big Role on Defense

Top pick from 2014 draft, playing in nickel defense, will be tested this Sunday against Giants' Odell Beckham Jr.

San Francisco 49ers defensive back Jimmie Ward knows he’ll be tested to his fullest this Sunday against the New York Giants.

More often than not, when Ward is lined up as the 49ers’ nickel cornerback he’ll be paired against Giants standout wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.

He knows all about him.

“Oh yes. He’s a very talented wide receiver. He’s on the face of Madden, man,” he said of the popular NFL video game. “It’s going to be fun. Matchups like that are just fun, playing against the superstars.”

Through four games in 2015, Beckham has 24 catches for 307 yards and two touchdowns. As a rookie in 2014, Beckham had 91 catches for 1,305 yards and 12 TDs.

Ward, the team’s No. 1 draft pick in 2014, has become a big part of the 49ers’ defense. A safety in college, Ward gets most of his work now as a defender of slot receivers in the nickel defense, against three-receiver sets.

And, to date, he’s been steadily improving. In last Sunday’s 17-3 loss to the Packers, Ward played 62 of the team’s 73 defensive snaps and did a nice job covering Randall Cobb, perhaps the Packers’ most dangerous receiver, out of the slot. Cobb had five catches, but for just 44 yards – only 8.8 yards per catch.

Ward, known as a hard-hitting safety as a college standout, said he took a physical approach against Cobb early in the game to counteract Cobb’s quickness and speed. Ward said his performance against Cobb and the Packers was perhaps the best of his young career.

Matt Barrows, who covers the 49ers for the Sacramento Bee, noted earlier this week that Ward got better as the game progressed.

“Aaron Rodgers picked on him during the opening drive, but Ward recovered from that point,” Barrows wrote. “He was credited with two tackles and one pass defensed.”

Ward says he’s still not 100 percent healthy after missing much of offseason workouts with a foot injury. But, he says he’s good enough now, and finally able to play a key role in his second NFL season. For now, the hybrid safety-cornerback role he’s playing in the nickel defense is fine with him – though someday he’d like to be a full-time safety because he likes to hit.

“The reason why I like nickel so much is because not everyone can do it,” Ward told reporters this week. “You have some cornerbacks who can cover but can’t hit. You have some safeties who can hit but can’t cover. I feel like I can do it all.”

This Sunday, the Giants and Beckham will test those abilities.

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