If push comes to shove Sunday, Jimmie Ward plans to push and shove back.
The 49ers cornerback didn’t do enough of that the last time he tangled with Brandon Marshall, the New York Jets’ big, physical wide receiver. As a result Ward received his first and most lasting lesson in the NFL.
Ward was playing his second game as a rookie early in 2014 and was the 49ers’ nickel cornerback. Marshall, with the Bears at the time, lined up in the slot. He ended up catching three touchdown passes – one of two three-score games of his career – with Ward in coverage on each. It was the 49ers’ first regular-season game at Levi’s Stadium, an embarrassing, nationally televised loss for a franchise that wanted to show off its new venue, and also for Ward, the team’s first-round pick that year.
“It was my welcome-to-the-NFL game,” Ward said. “I’m pretty sure I’ve told y’all this before: I’m just looking forward to going against Brandon Marshall for the second time in my career.”
As he readied for the rematch this week, Ward said he watched the 2014 game “a lot,” seemingly as much to pump himself up as to study his adversary.
“I feel like he was doing a little pushing,” Ward said of the 2014 game. “So going into this game, if he’s doing a little pushing, I’m going to do a little pushing. I just feel like whoever wants it more, that’s what it’s going to come down to.”
Marshall, meanwhile, might have to watch their previous matchup to remind him what exactly happened.
“I don’t really remember much about that game because I worked really hard to get back from a high-ankle (sprain),” he said on a conference call.
Marshall initially demurred when asked why his recollection was so fuzzy but then acknowledged the medication that allowed him to play in the game also dulled his memory.
“I’ll say it – I took a couple of pain pills that masked the pain,” Marshall said. “I really wasn’t supposed to play. I came back from a high ankle (sprain) within (seven) days. I was supposed to be out four to six weeks. I don’t really remember much about that game. I just remember catching those balls, and that was pretty much it.”
Ward likely will be matched against Marshall with little or no help on several occasions Sunday.
Over the past month, the 49ers have plugged their leaky run defense by sending their safeties and linebackers forward toward the line of scrimmage, which has prompted opponents to attack through the air.
They’ve had plenty of success.
The past three quarterbacks they’ve faced have combined for seven touchdown passes, no interceptions and a 116.5 passer rating. The 49ers’ cornerbacks, meanwhile, have no interceptions this year. The last one was delivered by Ward – he returned it for a touchdown – Dec. 6, 2015, against the Bears.
“It just kind of happens sometimes,” coach Chip Kelly said about the absence of interceptions. “I’ve been in places where, ‘Hey, we don’t have an interception,’ and then they come in bunches. So hopefully, they come in bunches this week. But sometimes that’s just part of the nature.”
It would be poetic if Ward breaks the cornerbacks’ dry spell. But his first order of business is making sure Marshall has a quiet afternoon.
“Pushing, shoving, there might be some flags,” he mused. “I don’t know; I don’t care. We’re out here playing football, and it’s going to be a physical game. And that’s what I’m going into it thinking.”