SANTA CLARA — After several seasons with a number of bad breaks (literally), Jimmie Ward has been able to show why every 49ers coaching staff he’s been with has loved him.
After only being healthy enough to play in 31 games during his first five seasons, Ward has played in all 14 games this season. While he has gotten a bad reputation with fans for being injury-prone, watching his style of play exemplifies why some of those injuries have occurred.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has praised Ward since his arrival in Santa Clara. Not only does the safety have speed and coverage skills, but the hard-hitting nature of his tackling can keep wide receivers and running backs very wary.
“Jimmie's versatility,” Saleh said, “I don't know if there's, I don't want to blur it, but there's not a lot of free safeties like him who is an exceptional cover guy along with the range he has in the middle of the field and his ability to do different things and the instinctiveness that he plays with, the physicality that he plays with.”
Saleh, of course, is completely aware of Ward’s reputation for not being able to stay healthy. Missing 52 of the last 97 games is not an admirable record.
“Knock on wood for him,” Saleh said. “We've always said that if he could stay healthy, people would recognize how special he is, and he's just got to continue staying the course, keep taking care of his body, keep doing the things he's doing. But, having his versatility is always an asset.
“I think it just goes with the overall philosophy on how we tackle,” Saleh continued. “Keeping your head out of the game and understanding your aiming points, and a guy like Jimmie who can move at the speed he does and to be able to target the way he does without creating penalties is special. That's what makes him unique.”
Tight end George Kittle faces Ward every day in practice and has high praise for the safety. But of course, he claims he has the upper hand on Ward.
“I mean, Jimmie is I think one of the greatest athletes I've ever been on a team with,” Kittle said. “He’s a complete freak of nature. He's incredibly fast. He's incredibly strong. He's smart, and he's incredibly physical, too.
“He's really an all-around player, and I think we missed a lot the last few years with him being injured. It really hurt our defense. And just the way he plays the game, too, he has so much fun doing it. He's just such a great football player, and having him out there makes our defense a lot better, and the last time we did go one-on-one, I did beat him, so it's okay.”
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Saleh preaches playing with extreme violence to his players but they have to be careful in not drawing a penalty flag when carrying out those orders. Coach Kyle Shanahan knows how challenging it can be for a player to find that balance, something Ward does very well.
“It's very difficult," Shanahan said. "It's very hard to have a violent hit in this league without a penalty just because of how fast it happens. It's hard to see for the refs and everyone. So, in order to do that and not get any penalties you've got to be a very skilled athlete, you've got to be fearless, you've got to be running in there at full speed not thinking about anything except where to put your shoulder pad.
"He's done a great job of that. There's been some that have been violent where I’m just waiting for a flag. But the ref's saw it right, because you look at it on the big screen and he doesn't have a helmet-to-helmet. And he's been huge for us this year. I think everyone knows how big of a fan I am of Jimmie and it's been great that he's just been able to stay healthy this year.”
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