49ers' Jimmie Ward player he is today thanks to long, difficult road

49ers' Jimmie Ward player he is today thanks to long, difficult road

SANTA CLARA – Jimmie Ward experienced a lot of bad breaks, literally and figuratively, since coming to the 49ers as the No. 30 overall pick in the 2014 draft.

It is possible that all the adversity he endured has enabled him to reach this point in his career where he is a better player on the 49ers’ best team since he has been in the league.

“It was really tough, and I was just fighting to survive in the NFL,” Ward said. “Even though I was a first-round pick, I didn’t feel like I was first round because – I don’t know – I barely got drafted in the first round, and it wasn’t like I was playing safety.

“I had to play where I was needed. When I got here, they already had two safeties, so I never really felt like that guy.”

Ward always has been considered one of the 49ers’ best 11 defensive players, but there was no room for him initially at his preferred position because the club already had Antoine Bethea and Eric Reid entrenched at the safety positions.

In his first four seasons, Ward had four different head coaches and four different defensive coordinators and four different defensive systems.

He had no stability and no chance to get comfortable in one spot. In his first five seasons, Ward bounced from nickel back to safety to cornerback to safety and back to cornerback while also finishing four of those seasons on injured reserve with foot, collarbone and two forearm fractures.

“Whenever you go through what Jimmie’s gone through, all those tough times, I believe it’s going to do two things to you: It’s either going to make you fold or it’s going to make you stronger,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “Jimmie’s gotten nothing but stronger through all of this.

“He’s become smarter, he’s become more versatile, he’s become more relentless because it’s very important to him. Take a guy off the field for any reason and I promise you they’ll do everything they can to get back on the field. Being on the field, he doesn’t take it for granted.”

Things seem to be settling down for Ward as he settles into the position he loves more than any other.

Finally, Ward seems to have found a home at free safety. And the 49ers have turned the corner this season to emerge as one of the NFL's top teams, featuring one of the league's top defenses. They meet the Green Bay Packers in a key NFC matchup on Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium. The 49ers sit in the top spot in the division and conference with a 9-1 record. The Packers are 8-2.

The tough times, the constant shuffling of positions and the nature of his injuries all have contributed to Ward playing the best football of his career as the 49ers appear destined for the postseason.

“If you don’t fail, you don’t learn,” Ward said. “If you don’t get beat in this game, you don’t learn. We lost a lot of games, and I got beat at multiple positions.

“My rookie year, coming in, I had to learn how to play certain wide receivers. Playing corner, something I didn’t do, I had to learn different techniques with different coaches. But each coach and each defense brought something new to my game. And when I finally got back to safety, that was home.”

Still, Ward believes there is more out there.

“I’m getting better each week. Hopefully, I end up playing safety next year,” Ward said, laughing. “I’m not doing too good. I’m not doing too bad. I feel like I’m in the middle right now. The defense is so good right now, everybody is making plays.”

Ward said he is having a lot of fun this season, but he is keeping all of the team’s success in perspective. He faces a huge challenge against Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but there will be more important challenges ahead, too.

“Sunday is not the Super Bowl,” Ward said. “It’s not even the playoffs. I get excited each game when I go out on Sundays, but I’m just saying, it’s nothing to get too high about, and it’s nothing to get too low about.”

Ward has been important to the 49ers’ defense because he fills the role of the “eraser.” His job is to make sure the 49ers’ defense does not surrender big, game-changing plays.

But Ward expects himself to make more big plays of his own, such as creating takeaways. He has not registered an interception since 2016. It will be difficult to pick off Rodgers, who has 17 touchdown passes and just two interceptions this season.

[RELATED: Kittle doesn't want to miss 'massive' game vs. Packers]

Ward's job is to prevent the opposition from connecting on big plays resulting in touchdowns. The 49ers have surrendered an NFL-low 18 pass plays of 20 yards or more, so Ward is doing his job.

"He's incredibly versatile. He’s a really smart player," 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said. "I think sometimes when you play that many positions in a complex defense, it puts you in positions where you’re not able to be successful, but I think it gave him experience, poise and confidence to be able to play all over the field, to play man coverage, zone, and it’s allowed him to thrive in the scheme we’re in now."

Ward has kept a measured approach to all of the adversity he has faced in his career, including the early portion of this season, as he fought to get back on the field.

He also fully realizes how quickly things can change.

“Those were some tough years,” he said. “I’ve been through some things. I stuck it out through the storm. Now, there’s a little sunshine.”

Chiefs vs. Titans live stream: How to watch AFC Championship online, on TV

Chiefs vs. Titans live stream: How to watch AFC Championship online, on TV

It's been a long year for the Kansas City Chiefs and the fans that cheer them on each week.

Last year, the team couldn't make it to the big game, and they're praying history doesn't repeat itself when they take on the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.

They'll have their work cut out for them having to face Derrick Henry. In the regular season, the running back averaged 102.7 yards per game with 18 total touchdowns. 

The Titans' run game could play a huge role in the possible success of the team.

The Chiefs, however, come into the matchup amidst a seven-game winning streak and are the favorites to advance to the Super Bowl against either the Green Bay Packers or the 49ers.

The Niners host the Packers Sunday for the NFC title game in a matchup that will have Jimmy Garoppolo facing someone he used to root for in college.

An old tweet resurfaced of Jimmy G cheering on Aaron Rodgers years ago in an NFC-division game that added to a warm-fuzzy storyline feeling. And the 49ers will do it with an advantage of no additional injuries heading into the game.

[RELATED: How Jimmy G compared self to Rodgers before draft]

Two of these four teams will head to Miami for Super Bowl LIV.

Here's how you can watch Sunday's AFC Championship matchup as the Chiefs host the Titans:

Start time: Sunday, Jan. 19, at 12:05 p.m. PT
TV Channel: CBS
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49ers vs. Packers live stream: How to watch NFL playoff game online, on TV


49ers vs. Packers live stream: How to watch NFL playoff game online, on TV

The 49ers have a golden opportunity to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 2013.

With a win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday at Levi's Stadium, the 49ers would head to Miami for Super Bowl LIV to take on the winner of the Tennesee Titans-Kansas City Chiefs AFC Championship Game.

San Francisco opened as seven-point favorites, but that number has risen to -7.5 in recent days.

Injuries hampered the 49ers for most of the season, but they will enter the game against the Packers with a clean bill of health. Similarly, the Packers only have one player listed on their injury report.

Back in Week 12, the 49ers thrashed the Packers, 37-8, in Santa Clara. But no one is expecting San Francisco to cakewalk over Green Bay this time.

In that Nov. 24 matchup, vaunted 49ers defense held Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to 198 yards of total offense. Rodgers completed 20 of 33 passes for just 104 yards. San Francisco will need another performance like that in order to play on Sunday, Feb. 2 in sunny Florida.

[RELATED: Five 49ers to watch vs. Packers]

Here's how to watch the 49ers-Packers NFC Championship Game:

When: Sunday, Jan. 19 at 6:40 p.m. ET/3:40 p.m. PT
Stream: Fox Sports; fuboTV -- Get a free trial

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (6 p.m. Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday)

Also tune in at 2:30 p.m. Sunday for “49ers Pregame Live,” with Laura Britt, Jeff Garcia, Donte Whitner, Ian Williams and Grant Liffmann previewing the NFC Championship Game against the Packers. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on “49ers Postgame Live,” starting at approximately 6:30 p.m.