SANTA CLARA – Jimmie Ward applied a lesson he learned from his second NFL game to help the 49ers preserve a 20-7 victory over the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.
On the night Levi’s Stadium opened for its first regular-season game in 2014, Ward struggled as the 49ers’ nickel back against Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall in the 49ers’ 28-20 loss. Ward, the 49ers' first-round draft pick that year, yielded three touchdown passes to Marshall, who was six inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than Ward.
“He was a good wide receiver,” Ward recalled at his locker this week. “I didn’t know how to play a bigger wide receivers at the time. That was a good learning experience. I say that was a bad game, but when I watch film now, it was a learning game. I learned so much. Any time I get beat, I’m learning from it. Look at this year right now, getting beat in previous years in man coverage got me better for this opportunity this year.”
On Sunday, the 49ers’ offense left the door open for the Rams with a turnover in the fourth quarter. But Ward broke up back-to-back passes on third and fourth downs on short throws from Jared Goff intended for tight end Gerald Everett and wide receiver Cooper Kupp – two players significantly larger than Ward.
“The experiences of getting beat in years before, different body receivers compared to tight ends -- you got to play them guys different ways,” Ward said. “You got to know where your help’s at on the defense. What I struggled with over the years was just not using my help, too. I can’t play every guy the same. I can’t play a guy that’s twice my size aggressive. That’s suicide. He can out-body you, out-jump you. You got to play smart.”
Ward is back in the starting lineup at free safety after healing from a broken ring finger on his right hand, an injury he sustained before the season opener. Tarvarius Moore started the first three games.
In his two games back, Ward has shown exactly why the 49ers have continued to have a high opinion of his temperament, tenacity and skill despite his history of injuries.
Four of Ward’s five NFL seasons ended with him going to injured reserve with broken bones. Then after signing a one-year, prove-it contract to return to the 49ers, he fractured his collarbone, which kept him out of the first part of training camp. Then, the broken finger and subsequent surgery sidelined him at the start of the regular season.
Ward said he never took it for granted the 49ers would want to bring him back after the club won just 10 games combined over the past two seasons. But even after Ward sustained a second season-ending forearm fracture in two years, the club wanted him back. Coach Kyle Shanahan and the entire coaching staff did not want Ward to play anywhere else but with the 49ers.
“Especially during losing seasons, nobody’s safe,” Ward said. “Like, not even the people who are working around the building. They might replace them. I never thought I was safe. I always believed in working. So that’s what it is.
“That’s why I’m hurtin’ because I’m workin’. I wouldn’t get hurt if I wasn’t workin’. I wouldn’t get hurt if I wasn’t putting it all out there on the line. I’d be OK. I’d come out with no nicks and no bruises.”
While those who play with him, coach him and are around him every day universally have high opinions of Ward as an unselfish player and person, there is a segment of the fans who have taken to social media platforms to show a lack of empathy for all of his injuries.
Now, of course, Ward is receiving praise for the contributions he made in the victories over the Cleveland Browns and the Rams.
Ward has been through enough to know that things can change in a hurry.
“It’s cool, but it’s not going to get me a ring,” he said.
"Faithful, 49ers fans, I love them to death. Keep cheering. We need you at those games. Keep buying those tickets ... I’ve been playing hard, I’ve been breaking bones without people gassing me and when people tell me I’m a bust and I suck, so it’s cool. I appreciate it, but at the same time, it means nothing. It’s just like being 5-0 right now. We haven’t done anything, yet. We got to do something first.”