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Starting free safety ‘still being decided,’ but Jimmie Ward might have the edge in crucial area

© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Since the start of the 49ers’ season, it’s been all Tarvarius Moore and none of Jimmie Ward at free safety. Ward has yet to be active for any of the first three weeks, while Moore has shown the promise and drawbacks of effectively being a rookie at the position. Despite being drafted in the third round in 2018, he played the majority of the year at corner and was finally returned to his more comfortable free safety position this year (he and D.J. Reed Jr. effectively flipped, with Reed moving back to corner).

For Ward, it’s been the same old story—he hasn’t been healthy.

A broken collarbone in OTAs saw him sidelined for much of training camp, and when he finally did return to practice, he broke his right index finger by getting it caught in a teammate’s jersey. It required surgery and has seen Ward practice with a sort of club-cast on his hand for the past few weeks; which seems to be the main cause for his inactive designation for the first three weeks. As Ward said on Friday, it was a decision made by the team’s doctors, and he would have played if he could have.

Thursday marked the most significant update on Ward. Kyle Shanahan pointed to Ward’s improved health and flexibility, hinting at the fact that he’ll likely be active for the first time on Monday night.

“Jimmie’s always the wild card because Jimmie can help us at really every single position except for maybe D-Line, but I’m sure he’d find a way to do that,” Shanahan said. “He’s healthier now than he has been. He’s been healthy, but his cast has gotten smaller so it’s a lot easier for him to go this week. He’s got the possibility to play at any spot. We’ll see how practice goes and where we want to put him.”

There’s no sign of the club-like thing on Ward’s hand anymore, as he’s switched to a more manageable hand wrap. What that means for Monday night is that Ward will almost certainly be on the field, it’s just a question of where. He’s a natural free safety, but as Shanahan highlighted Thursday, he has the flexibility to play anywhere on the field.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh reaffirmed on Friday that he believes Ward to be one of the 49ers’ “best 11” defensive players. While he declined to say how that would manifest, there’s one area—tracking in the pass game—in which Saleh implied Ward is a step up from Moore.

It’s an obvious area where Moore struggled, and it was highlighted on the 76-yard pass-and-catch touchdown from Mason Rudolph to Juju Smith-Schuster in Week 3.

Saleh went in depth on what Moore has to correct.

“Tarvarius can get a lot better at angle tracking. His issue isn’t tracking,” Saleh said. “There’s two types of tracking a middle-third safety has to take. There’s the get on course, which is when the ball is thrown, they get on course to eliminate if one of the DBs loses a one-on-one and it’s that middle-third safety’s job to get on course and knock that thing down so it doesn’t crease us. Then, the second part is tracking in the run game, where if the ball does break the front seven or the box, his job is to track near hip and tackle that so that way those runs don’t become explosive.”

Moore’s issue, at least in Saleh’s lexicon, is the “get on course” angle tracking that happens on pass plays at high speeds and less predictable angles, rather than the tracking in the run game, where Moore has looked excellent. In what’s often a Cover-3 defense, the free safety is required to be the “eraser.”

“That’s why he (the free safety) is called the eraser. He erases all the mistakes that happen in front of him,” Saleh said. “So, for Tarvarius, the tracking in the run game is really good. He’s got to improve his tracking out of the middle of the field when he gets on course. When the ball is thrown, eyes before feet, get on course, track the near hip and tackle. That’s something he’s working on. Daniel [Bullocks] (safeties coach) has been working with him, him and Joe Woods (defensive backs coach), and he’s going to get better at it. He’s a young man, so I’ve got a lot of faith in him.”

Saleh said the key to an improvement lies with “eye discipline.”

“I’ve always talked about football’s a piece of C.A.K.E., don’t make it harder than it has to be. C.A.K.E. is call, alignment, key and execute,” Saleh said. “Key is your eyes, put your eyes where they need pre-snap, put your eyes where they need to be post-snap, and when that ball is thrown, put your eyes where they need to be so you can go tackle. So, as long as you’ve got great eye discipline, and you’re putting it where you need to be, you’ll have faith in your athleticism that you’ll be able to make the play.”

Ward has a penchant for tracking the ball effectively and making tackles. “Jimmie’s pretty good at tracking,” said Saleh, with a smile on his face, hinting at the fact that his answer was far more subdued than what he maybe wanted to say about Ward’s capability for tracking the ball.

The main difference in the two types of tracking is that pass tackling requires faith in speed and has far less predictability than in the run game, according to Saleh.

“In the run game, it’s coming out of a shoot,” Saleh said. “So, you’re using the bodies in front of you as leverage. But when you’re out in the open field, a get-on-course tackle is very hard and it’s something that you’ve got to have great faith in your speed, which [Moore] has tremendous amounts of speed, and you’ve got to have great eye discipline and ability to transition and put yourself on course and stay on that course no matter what and just throw. And if you do that, 99 out of 100 times you should get him down. And it’s something that he’s working on. He’s going to be a good one. He’s just got some things to work on. Excited for him to get better.”

There’s no question Saleh expects Moore to improve and remain a 49ers staple for the long-haul. But there’s not all that much time to improve before the 49ers face an offense in the Cleveland Browns that has Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, and is now returning Antonio Callaway along with Baker Mayfield at the helm.

If Moore takes another bad angle against Landry in the slot like he did against Smith-Schuster, or tries to undercut a deep route to Beckham or Callaway, it’s going to be a touchdown. The 49ers might not be willing to take the chance of starting Moore against that sort of dynamism, or they might pull the plug quickly for Ward if he struggles.

I asked Ward how he learned to track effectively, and he said it’s a combination of instinct and development over his career.

“You just have to learn how to tackle different people at different levels of play,” Ward said. “What I mean by that, is there’s certain ways you can tackle and get away with it in college and you can’t get away with a lot in the NFL. Then there are certain different schemes, too. Because back in college, I was a quarter safety, so I was at different angles. Now, it’s more posts and man free, so I have to track inside-out.”

Ward chuckled when reporters asked (and repeatedly, at that) if he’d be starting at free safety on Monday.

“It depends on the call,” Ward said. “I might be in the post, I may not. I might be covering, I might be at cornerback this week, I might be at nickel. Who knows? You’ll know though… on Monday.”


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