Nickel cornerback may be the most thankless position in the NFL.
Each week, you line up against the opposing quarterback’s favorite target on the most critical downs of the drive. There’s no sideline to help steer your opponent. He can go left, he can dart right, and you have to be aware of other receivers coming across the middle to rub you off the route.
During one three-week stretch this season, the 49ers’ Jimmie Ward was matched at times against a murderers row of receivers: Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald, Green Bay’s Randall Cobb and the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr. How does he think he’s handled the task so far?
“Way better than last year,” Ward said.
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Ward’s rookie season a year ago was marked by two events. The first was a Week 2 game in which Bears receiver Brandon Marshall scored three touchdowns – all of them with Ward in coverage – during a come-from-behind win for Chicago.
The second was a Week 10 touchdown by the Saints in New Orleans on which Ward re-broke his foot. The injury ended his 2014 rookie season and knocked him out of action until the end of training camp, a nine-month span.
His most notable play of 2015, however, was infinitely more positive: an interception for a touchdown Dec. 6 against the same Bears team that embarrassed him as a rookie.
According to Pro Football Focus, Ward has had just one rotten outing this season, the 49ers’ Week 11 loss in Seattle in which quarterback Russell Wilson completed 24 of his 29 pass attempts. In the three games since, Ward has allowed only four catches for 49 yards, and opposing quarterbacks have a lowly 39.3 passer rating when targeting him.
Sunday’s adversary is Bengals quarterback A.J. McCarron. He’ll make his first NFL start, but Ward knows him well. After all, they played football together when they were third-graders in Mobile, Ala.
“He does kind of the same stuff since we were young,” Ward said. “He looks off the wide receivers. He’s a pocket passer, of course. I know once he gets comfortable in the pocket, he’s a very accurate quarterback and can make good throws.”
Said McCarron: “Me and Neko were on the same team ever since we were 7 years old. We won three or four championships together, I can’t remember.”
It’s what everyone in Mobile calls Ward. In fact, if you referred to him as “Jimmie,” one of his boyhood teammates might not know who you mean, McCarron said. The nickname stems from Ward’s middle name, which is Neko Suave. Ward was born in 1991, the same year campy single “Rico Suave” was playing on the radio.
“My mother wanted to name me after Rico Suave, but she put a little twist to it,” said Ward, who heard chants of “Ne-ko! Su-ave!” from the stands during high school football games.
Nobody is chanting his name yet at Levi’s Stadium, but the first-round draft pick has been getting strong reviews from his coaches.
Ward has played 61 percent of San Francisco’s defensive snaps – a sign that his foot has fully healed – and he’s pulled double duty in the film room. With Antoine Bethea and L.J. McCray out with season-ending injuries, Ward is the 49ers’ emergency safety along with being their top nickel cornerback.
“Jimmie is a guy that we go through the game plan and I know on some of the road games, he’ll be up sitting with (secondary coach) Tim Lewis and want to go through everything again, even if he knows it because he wants to be right,” defensive coordinator Eric Mangini said. “He wants to make sure that he’s got every one of his assignments down. It’s a great quality, great quality that he has.”
Ward said he spends most of his film sessions next to one of the starting members of the secondary, cornerbacks Tramaine Brock and Kenneth Acker or safeties Eric Reid and Jaquiski Tartt. Ward’s success largely rests on knowing where his help lies, and he said studying alongside teammates gives him a better sense of where each man is on a given play.
He figures McCarron has been doing the same sort of preparation.
“I think he’ll be ready to go,” Ward said. “I think A.J. right now is putting in some hard work, studying our defense, trying to figure out our weak points and our strong points.”