© Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
There is oh, so much talk about the 49ers’ defensive line, and rightfully so. Dee Ford and Nick Bosa have elevated a previously tepid front line to elite status, and DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and co. have all benefited in defensive line coach Kris Kocurek’s wide-nine scheme.
But when there’s a rare missed tackle, or a running back isn’t swallowed up by one of Ford, Bosa, Buckner, Armstead, D.J. Jones, Ronald Blair or Solomon Thomas, you’ll often see one of three players there to cut the play down: Jaquiski Tartt, Jimmie Ward, or K’Waun Williams.
All three have been tremendous through thus far, with Williams performing at a near lockdown level against opposing slot receivers, and hitting far harder than his size (5′9″, 183 lbs) would suggest he’d be capable of. Richard Sherman called him “the best nickel in football” after the 20-7 win over the Los Angeles Rams. His tackling punch has allowed little let-off from a position that was largely taken by a SAM linebacker in past years, and is now mostly Williams, thanks to the 49ers’ massive increase in nickel package use.
But it’s the play of Tartt and Ward which has fundamentally changed the makeup of the 49ers defense. The safety play in 2018 was horrendous, which is why Adrian Colbert is no longer with the team. It’s also why as soon as Ward was healthy, he took over from promising, but raw free safety Tarvarius Moore, who is effectively a rookie at the position this year.
Ward made two fourth-down stops against the Rams last Sunday, and had a third-and-two pass breakup on the play before breaking up the fourth-and-two. Head coach Kyle Shanahan said after the game, “I’d wear a Jimmie Ward jersey on the sideline if they let me.”
He has been crucial in providing help in coverage, and has learned to use his own help, something he admitted that he struggled with earlier in his career. Most of all, he’s been “erasing”—as defensive coordinator Robert Saleh describes the free safety’s role—plays like Nick Chubb’s 37-yard rush two weeks ago, which threatened to become a touchdown if not for Ward’s tackle.
Jimmie Ward is responsible for both stops on 4th & 1 against the Rams. pic.twitter.com/d1F1nHRIxC
— TheSFNiners (@TheSFNiners) October 16, 2019
Tartt has been immense, covering off gaps in the 49ers’ zone and using space created by the front to get to rushers quickly. He’s been used in sort of a free role, as he was below against the Rams, sometimes lining up as a linebacker. The play below, a screen which he identified early and waited on, was a three-yard loss which exemplifies the effect he’s been having on the 49ers defense.
Recognizes the run fake, recognizes the screen and obliterates this guy. Excellent play by Jaquiski Tartt. pic.twitter.com/Yl4fFepqcn
— Grant Cohn (@grantcohn) October 16, 2019
But not everyone’s caught on so quickly. Tartt and Ward haven’t received the same plaudits as the front six, something Sherman called for specifically after the win over the Rams.
“Jaquiski Tartt. JA-QUAS-KI TARTT,” Sherman said, making a point to enunciate. “I feel like he’s not getting enough love because they just don’t know how to say his name. Ja-quas-ki Tartt. He’s playing at a high level right now. JIMM-IE WARD. Those are people that you probably should keep track of and start to pay attention to. You don’t hold an offense like that to 100 yards passing and, shoot, 100 yards total, without outstanding football on the backend.”
Sherman believes that lack of recognition may come from the fact that people mistakenly interpret the past few years without success as an indictment of their quality.
“They look at the past history of our defense and what was happening in those years, but you can’t do that,” Sherman said. “You know, every year is different. And you have to look at each year individually. These guys are having an individually fantastic year right now and they deserve all the credit in the world. Jaquiski Tartt has been playing fantastic. Jimmie Ward has been playing lights out since he came back into the lineup and they deserve credit… you don’t play at this high level without All-Pro, Pro-Bowl players. It’s not an aberration, it’s not a mirage that this is happening.”
The Alabama mentality and a lack of satisfaction with being 5-0
Tartt and Ward’s history goes back to 2009, at W.P. Davidson High School in Mobile, Alabama. Ward was initially an outside linebacker, but transitioned to safety, where he and Tartt, in what was Tartt’s only year of high school football (who is a fantastic basketball player and admittedly thought about life as an NBA, not NFL player), manned the deep secondary together.
The Davidson Warriors won the Class 6A Region 1 Championship, but lost in the third round of the playoffs in that season, finishing the year with an 11-3 record and ranked 14th in the state of Alabama.
Tartt, who went to Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama told KNBR he felt like he should’ve been recruited more than he was in his lone season, seeing a pair of his teammates recruited to Alabama—though he had no interest in Alabama or Auburn. Ward took off for Northern Illinois and was drafted by the 49ers in the first round of 2014. The next year, when he had declared for the draft, Tartt said he was praying he and Ward could team up again, before the “crazy” scenario became reality.
After years of lacking synchronicity, with Ward often playing nickel or corner, or one or both of them being injured, they are finally healthy at the same time and playing at the peak of their powers.
“It’s been fun,” Tartt said. “I mean, just knowing what he’s been through and what I’ve been through, just to finally to be out there playing good ball together, it’s great—but at the same time, we just gotta stay focused.”
When Ward was asked about his sort of bulldog brand of football, wide receiver Jordan Matthews, a fellow Alabamian whose locker is next to Ward’s, piped up.
“That boy from Alabama,” Matthews said, to a smattering of reporter laughs.
What is it that’s different about growing up Alabama? According to Tartt, it’s a craving for football that starts with the moms.
“Alabama is all about football. That’s the first thing you want as a child, that’s everything everybody talks about is football,” Tartt said. “Basketball kind of gets overlooked. A lot of women know football more than men in Alabama. So football is just the thing you’re going to end up playing regardless… A lot of moms are involved heavily in all sports, but for sure football. Even though you don’t want to play, they gonna make you go play. So that’s what kind of moms you’re dealing with.”
Front office faith in Tartt, Ward is paying out
Both Tartt and Ward entered the 2019 season with those less-than comforting injury histories, prematurely considered “busts” by some due to their inability to stay healthy.
Last season, Tartt played just eight games, missing six with a shoulder injury before being placed on injured reserve in Week 13. He played nine games in 2017, missing time with a concussion before a broken forearm saw him placed on injured reserve in Week 10.
Ward’s injury history is well documented and was one of the most pressing concerns entering the season. He suffered a broken collarbone in OTAs, and then almost immediately fractured a finger, catching it, bizarrely, in a teammate’s jersey during practice. Some even referred to Ward by an unpleasant, less-than-clever nickname: “Jimmie Hospital-Ward.”
Before his rookie season in 2014, Ward was discovered to have a Jones fracture in his fifth metatarsal and had a screw put in. He was placed on injured reserve in Week 10 when the screw bent and he needed a larger one inserted.
His only healthy, 16-game season was in 2015. He missed three games in 2016 with a quad injury and fractured his right collarbone in Week 15, ending up on injured reserve for the second time. In 2017, he was placed on the physically unable to perform list with a hamstring injury, missing much of training camp, before fracturing his left forearm and being placed back on injured reserve in Week 8. In 2018, he had a preseason ankle injury, left Week 3 and Week 6 games early with a hamstring injury, and fractured his left forearm again, but in a different spot, in Week 13, yet again heading back to injured reserve.
There was a healthy amount of doubt directed towards the 49ers’ front office for deciding to roll the dice again with Ward and not acquire another free safety in free agency, with players like Eric Weddle, Earl Thomas and Tre Boston all available. So far, it’s paying dividends, but as Ward said Wednesday, it’s still just five games into the season.
“We haven’t proved nothing. It’s nothing. I’ve only played in two games, were 5-0, that’s cool,” Ward said. “But we still haven’t did anything yet. Maybe if you catch me later on in the season, and we’re in the playoffs and we winning and we win playoff games then maybe I’ll have a better answer for you, but right now, we haven’t did nothing. 5-0 means nothing. It’s great. It feels good right now, but when it comes Sunday, it goes out the door. We’re 0-0. We’ve got to get a win.”
Why Ward stayed, and the defense’s unifying quality
Ward, Tartt, Buckner and Armstead are some of the key remnants of the Trent Baalke era, who are now at the heart of the 49ers’ success. Ward said he has “nothing but love” for Baalke, and pointed out that it could have easily been him, Tartt or Armstead—”even the people that’s working around the building”—who could have been replaced in one of those four losing seasons.
But Ward stayed, receiving a one-year deal to remain with the 49ers this offseason. While he said there were other teams with interest, general manager John Lynch was the first to offer him a deal. Ward also had some inside info; he knew what Shanahan was targeting in the draft and with that knowledge, he “wasn’t trying to leave.”
Throughout the almost unbelievable stretch of injuries, Ward said he never felt comfortable in his roster spot. But the way he sees it, those injuries are a result of his work ethic.
“I never thought I was safe. I just always believe in working, so that’s what it is,” Ward said. “That’s why I’m hurt. Because I’m working. I wouldn’t get hurt if I wasn’t working. I wouldn’t get hurt if I wasn’t putting it all out there on the line. I just wouldn’t get hurt, I’d come out with no nicks and bruises. So that’s just what I live by. Just practice hard and if I do get injured, fuck it, I’m gonna get back up, and imma bounce back.”
The defensive success isn’t solely a result of health. Tartt said there’s been an unseen level of work put in by the defense this year, coupled with the addition of defensive backs coach Joe Woods and impressive coaching from Saleh and safeties coach Daniel Bullocks in their third seasons.
As you might recall, safety Tarvarius Moore was played at corner last season and corner D.J. Reed Jr. played at safety under former defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley, who is now the co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach at Ohio State.
Woods moved Moore and Reed back to their natural safety and corner roles, respectively, where they played in college. While Moore wasn’t perfect at safety in his three games thus far (Ward’s biggest asset is his open-field tackling in the pass game, where Moore struggled), and Reed hasn’t played too often this season, they’ve both appeared much improved at their natural positions, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to expect them to improve where they’re more comfortable.
While rookies don’t have much say in how they’re utilized, that sort of willingness to embrace a positional adjustment has been present everywhere on defense.
Solomon Thomas, back at his more comfortable spot on the interior, has effectively accepted a role as the seventh defensive lineman in the pecking order. Kwon Alexander moved to WILL linebacker, allowing the sophomore Fred Warner to take on MIKE duties. Ward played nickel his first two years, then corner, and is now back at safety.
There is a clear lack of ego, and willingness to accept different roles on defense, something that Buckner acknowledged, Sherman credited as “absolutely crucial,” and Tartt said provides an added level of trust. It’s been an evident front office decision to identify players who, for the most part, aren’t self-focused, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed by players.
“Just having people here in the locker room that are very accountable, knowing that we don’t have room for nobody’s ego,” Tartt said. “Just knowing that, knowing that you can play for your brother next to you. That’s the best thing since sliced bread. I mean, it’s beautiful knowing that all the work we put in, knowing that I can trust the guy next to me. It shows on Sunday.”
Bothered by criticism turned praise? ‘Not at all’
The lazy barbs at Ward for his injury history are starting to morph into a tentative praise, and the same goes for Tartt, though he wasn’t bludgeoned with the same level of injury criticism that Ward has been. Ward is the first to admit he still thinks about his injuries, but it’s that past experience of being injured and losing on a near-constant basis that’s given him the perspective to be nonplussed by a 5-0 start or the change of tune by his critics.
“I feel like I’ve been through enough injuries where I know how to channel out all the negative stuff,” Ward said. “I’m human, I still think about it. When I got here, my rookie year, I was at my all-time low, had one of my worst games ever (against Brandon Marshall and the Chicago Bears) and broke my foot. So then each season was a losing season, so I played at a low for a lot years. So it’s cool to just be you know, be 5-0, but I know that it’s nothing.”
To say that 5-0 is “nothing,” is a reflection of lessons learned from those lows.
“I’ve been through seasons, I’ve been through injuries, so I know 5-0 is not where I want to be at,” Ward said. “It’s cool and all, it’s impressive, I guess, for the people outside, but inside this locker room, it means nothing. 5-0 doesn’t get you nothing. 5-0 doesn’t get you a ring, 5-0 doesn’t get you another contract. 5-0 doesn’t do nothing. It’s cool, that’s it, for right now, until next week. Because if we lose next week, 5-0 goes out the door, it doesn’t mean nothing.”
While a team like the New England Patriots can effectively check its playoff box before the season starts, the 49ers’ closest whiff of the playoffs was five years ago, at 8-8. Outside of Joe Staley and Garrett Celek, no one on this current team was around for the three-year playoff stretch from 2011-2013.
But now there’s a genuine sense that better days are here, a fair reaction to the 49ers (5-0) remaining the only undefeated team in the NFC, and only undefeated team in the NFL outside of the Patriots (6-0). As the performances have built upon one another, the praise has slowly drifted down to Ward and Tartt, seemingly from the some of the same people who were their harshest critics.
Surely, that must anger them, at least a little bit.
“Not at all,” Tartt said. “I mean, you’re always going to have people who are against you, who don’t like you. That’s just life. At the end of the day, you just gotta ignore that. Even the people who do ride with you, it’s the same thing. You just gotta remain neutral on it.”
What will it take for Tartt and Ward to feel satisfied?
“I would say a Super Bowl, we win it,” Tartt said. “That’s when we look back, ‘OK we made it to the Super Bowl, we won it.’ But that’s a long way. I mean, in this league, you got a lot of good players, man. It’s hard to look ahead and think, ‘Oh, yeah, we got this.’ So each week we just got to come with that mentality like we’re the underdog, we want it, we’re hungry… for us being on the short end of the stick the past few years, it brings that fuel.”