49ers' Jimmie Ward ready for challenge of facing Packers' Aaron Rodgers

49ers' Jimmie Ward ready for challenge of facing Packers' Aaron Rodgers

SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers’ best defense last week against Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins was to limit the effectiveness of running back Dalvin Cook.

The plan is similar this week in the NFC Championship Game against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. For the 49ers, it starts with taking care of the other Aaron – running back Aaron Jones – on early downs to set up third-and-long situations.

“We have to force them to be one-dimensional,” 49ers free safety Jimmie Ward said. “Stop the run, just like any NFL team and force them to be one-dimensional, and it will probably be good results at the end.”

That is what the 49ers did on Nov. 24, as they held Jones to 38 yards rushing on 13 carries in the 49ers' 37-8 win.

On the season, Jones gained 1,084 yards and scored 16 touchdowns while averaging 4.6 yards per rushing attempt.

But against the 49ers in Week 12, Rodgers could not compensate for the Packers’ lack of production from their lead back. If the 49ers’ defense sets up situations in which Green Bay must pass, it enables the pass rush to turn up the heat.

Rodgers produced historically low numbers, completing 20 of 33 pass attempts for just 104 yards in the 49ers' dominant victory. Rodgers' 3.2 yards per attempt was the worst single-game production of his career.

Rodgers has uncanny arm strength and accuracy. He likes to take deep shots down the field, so Ward figures to be tested in the deep middle of the field. But, for him, it is another challenge to prevent big plays.

The 49ers took care of the Vikings' run game in their 27-10 victory last week. Cook had 18 yards on nine carries. And aside from a 41-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter from Cousins to Stefon Diggs, the pass defense excelled. The 49ers sacked Cousins six times.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh's unit was among the best in the NFL at limiting big plays in the passing game this season. The 49ers and Buffalo Bills tied for best in the league at allowing just 34 pass plays of 20 yards or more during the regular season.

“I feel like there’s a lot of pressure facing any NFL quarterback,” Ward said. “All of them are good. All of them can throw the ball deep. All of them have great talent surrounding them. I got to be at my best each Sunday, Monday, Thursday, Saturday, whatever day that is we got to play a ballgame.”

Ward, who was chosen as a Pro Bowl alternate after starting in each of the team’s final 13 games, broke up eight passes this season and registered a career-high 65 tackles. He still is looking to provide his team the kind of game-changing takeaway he believes he can offer.

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Rodgers is a gunslinger, but he also careful with the ball. In the regular season, he threw 26 touchdown passes and just four interceptions. In the Packers’ 28-23 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, Rodgers completed 16 of 27 passes for 243 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.

“It’ll be a great opportunity,” Ward said. “He’s going to put the ball in the air, and I just have to make the play.”

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

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 5:30 p.m.

How 49ers can add more picks in 2020 NFL Draft, according to Peter King

How 49ers can add more picks in 2020 NFL Draft, according to Peter King

The 49ers own the No. 31 overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, but after that, they are extremely shorthanded on selections this year. 

San Francisco has just one pick in the top 150. After the first round, the 49ers won't be on the clock again until the fifth round. They own two fifth-round picks, one in the sixth and two in the seventh. 

Between the second and fifth round, it's completely barren for general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan. But NBC Sports' Peter King looked at how San Francisco could accrue more selections this April. 

Here's what King wrote in his latest Football Morning in America column. 

To project the Niners’ path, I looked north for a clue. The arch-rival Seahawks, with ever-restless GM John Schneider, provided an excellent example in 2019 of how to turn one first-round pick into a bevy of picks, replenishing what would have been a thin crop.

The trades:

Seattle traded its first-round pick, 21st overall, to Green Bay for the 30th, 114th and 118th picks.
Seattle traded the 30th pick to the Giants for the 37th, 132nd and 142nd picks.
Seattle traded the 37th pick to Carolina for the 47th and 77th picks. At 47, Seattle picked S Marquise Blair.
Seattle traded the 77th and 118th picks to New England for the 64th pick. At 64, Seattle selected WR DK Metcalf.
Seattle traded the 114th pick to Minnesota for the 120th and 204th picks.
Seattle picked WR Gary Jennings Jr. at 120, S Ugo Amadi at 132, LB Ben Burr-Kiven at 142, and RB Travis Homer at 204.

So Seattle turned pick 21 into picks 47, 64, 120, 132, 142 and 204 ... two second-round picks, two fourth-round picks, one fifth-round pick and one sixth-round pick.

The 49ers lost their second-round pick when they acquired defensive end Dee Ford in a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs last offseason. They then lost their third- and fourth-round picks when they acquired wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in a midseason trade with the Denver Broncos.

But they added a fifth-round pick in the Sanders trade and a seventh-round pick from the Detroit Lions in a 2018 trade where they shipped away linebacker Eli Harold.

[RELATED: 49ers in good shape at QB entering the 2020 offseason]

The 49ers don't have too many holes on their roster after losing to the Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, however, depth is always a must as they learned this season. With Jimmie Ward being an unrestricted free agent, the 49ers could target a safety early in the draft. They also likely will have their eyes on a loaded receiver class and depth on the interior offensive line. 

To add picks, though, they might have to take a lesson from their biggest rivals.

49ers roster analysis: Quarterbacks in good shape entering 2020 season

49ers roster analysis: Quarterbacks in good shape entering 2020 season

This is the first installment of a 10-part series that examines the 49ers’ roster coming out of the 2019 season, looks ahead to 2020, and outlines the offseason challenges facing general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan on a position-by-position basis.

Monday, a look at the 49ers’ quarterback position.

Under contract (signed through)

-Jimmy Garoppolo (2022)
-C.J. Beathard (2020)

Expiring contract

-Nick Mullens

As an exclusive-rights free agent, Mullens has no outside negotiating power. The 49ers retain his rights with a qualifying offer, but they could also look to sign him this offseason to a multi-year contract.

What needs to happen

The 49ers kept three quarterbacks on their 53-man roster last season because they believed the third quarterback held more value than a backup player at another position. That strategy did not cost the 49ers.

Despite keeping an extra quarterback, the 49ers were still able to bring back the top players they cut at the end of training camp when they needed them. Those players included running back Jeff Wilson, safety Marcell Harris, linebacker Elijah Lee and defensive lineman Damontre Moore.

This offseason, the 49ers will again be open-minded about the possibility of trading a quarterback. Beathard is scheduled for unrestricted free agency after this season, so it is unlikely the 49ers will be able to keep all three quarterbacks beyond this year.

The 49ers can also be expected to sign a fourth quarterback for the offseason program and training camp. They are likely to pick up an undrafted rookie who could have a shot at the practice squad if the 49ers deal away one of their QBs.


Garoppolo threw for the fourth-most yards in franchise history in 2019. He was particularly impressive over the final 10 games of the regular season, when he achieved passer ratings of 110-or-better seven times.

Garoppolo started 19 games, including the postseason. In the Super Bowl, he completed 18 of his first 21 pass attempts. But in the final 10 minutes, he went 2 of 10 for 24 yards with an interception and a sack. The 49ers let a 10-point fourth-quarter lead get away in a 31-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. Afterward, Shanahan backed Garoppolo.

Garoppolo had never before started more than five games in a season before 2019. He should be even better in 2020 with a great knowledge of coach Kyle Shanahan’s system and the valuable experience he gained.

Overall, Garoppolo threw 29 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. A reasonable expectation is that he cuts his interception total in half for the 2020 season.

[RELATED: Juice sick of Jimmy G, Shanahan criticism after Super Bowl]

Mullens won the backup job last year over Beathard. Despite not attempting a pass, Mullens believes he made improvements behind the scenes that will be apparent the next time he gets a chance.

The 49ers should feel good about their quarterback situation entering the season, and there is no reason for the 49ers to make any significant move at this position.