Jimmie Ward

49ers mailbag: Dante Pettis awaits next opportunity to make difference

49ers mailbag: Dante Pettis awaits next opportunity to make difference

Who will it be next?

Who will be the unexpected player who ends up in a significant role for the 49ers on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game?

The 49ers play the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium with a trip to Super Bowl LIV on the line. And on the eve of the big game before the big game, we have another edition of the 49ers Mailbag.

Here we go. 

San Francisco receiver Dante Pettis sits at his locker every day during the time when the doors are open to the media around the lunch hour.

It had been a while since I wandered over to chat with Pettis. But on Friday, I wanted to check in with him to gauge how he was holding up during a stretch in which he has not gotten into a game since playing seven snaps against the Green Bay Packers in Week 12.

Pettis has suited up for the past four games, but he has not gotten off the sideline. He has not caught a pass since he had a 21-yard reception on Oct. 31 against the Arizona Cardinals. 

“I’m ready whenever that time comes,” Pettis told me. “Just waiting for that time now.”

Pettis, a second-round draft pick in 2018, was expected to be a starter and the team's top receiver after last season. Other than a game-winning touchdown catch with 1:15 remaining in a Week 3 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pettis has been quiet.

But Pettis knows at any moment he might be needed to go into a game for Emmanuel Sanders or Deebo Samuel. it has been one of the hallmarks of the 49ers this season. A seldom-used player is called up, and he takes advantage of the situation.

That’s the nature of this year’s team. Guys have stayed ready and routinely taken advantage of their opportunities.

“You know that’s the reality when you have one play or whatever, you just have that in your mind,” Pettis said. “This is the play I have, I have to make the most of it. A lot of people have done a good job of that.

“We have a lot of depth on our team, and everybody can see that. The guys are backing up, they feel like they are good enough to play. When I get my shot, I’m going to be ready because I know I’m good enough to be out there to compete with these guys.”

Pettis said he has worked a lot with assistant receivers coach Miles Austin, who has emphasized to him that he does not have to do “fancy stuff” on every route. Just take the leverage you have, Austin has told him, be quick and decisive.

After speaking with Pettis, I went over to see running back Jeff Wilson. He provided one of the big moments of the season on Nov. 17 against the Arizona Cardinals. Wilson played one snap in that game. In the final minute, he ran a great route of the backfield, caught a pass from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and turned it into a game-winning 25-yard touchdown.

But with Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida ahead of him on the depth chart, Wilson has been inactive for four of the past five games.

Still, he remains ready with a great attitude.

“I just go out there and play like my life and my career depends on it because it actually does,” Wilson said. “I have a lot of stuff I’m trying to do, and I want to play this game for as long as I possibly can. And I know to do that, you have to make those plays whenever you’re called upon. Whether it’s one play or two plays, or if you go in to block, you have to do whatever it takes.”

Pettis and Wilson both said they feel energy and get inspiration from their teammates. Pettis said it’s exciting for him to see his friends in the receivers room experience individual success. Wilson said the other running backs treat him as an equal and he, in turn, feels an obligation to work hard and support them, too.

Oh, man, what a good question.

Ward is such an important part of the defense, so he gets the nod. He probably will not cost as much to retain, either.

But the 49ers have to feel pretty good about their options at both spots. There will be a time when Tarvarius Moore is a starting safety in the NFL. And at wide receiver, the 49ers hope to get Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd at full strength next season.

But let’s not for a second downplay Sanders’ importance to the 49ers. He has been so good in so many different ways since arriving in an October trade from the Denver Broncos. But Sanders will be 33 next season, and difficult decisions must be made.

From the beginning of the offseason program, the 49ers have thoroughly impressed me with their approach. They are focused on business while also maintaining balance, being loose and having a lot of fun. I saw absolutely nothing different in their approach this week. It starts at the top, and I feel as if coach Kyle Shanahan was built for this.

[RELATEDKittle takes center stage in NFC title game vs. Packers]

My guess is that TVs in the locker room will have the AFC Championship Game on, but there will be nobody pulling up a stool to watch. Dee Ford will be interested, for sure. The former member of the Kansas City Chiefs will check the score from time to time, but all the focus will be on the game that kicks off at 3:40 p.m.

Shanahan was not saying this week who will start at right cornerback. One would think Emmanuel Moseley will get the call, but Ahkello Witherspoon has to be ready to go. At the very least, he’ll play special teams, where he can make an impact in that area.

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage 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

49ers' Jimmie Ward showing how special he can be now that he's healthy

49ers' Jimmie Ward showing how special he can be now that he's healthy

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.”

[RELATED: Kittle must take center stage vs. Packers]

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.”

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.

Five 49ers to watch vs. Packers: George Kittle takes center stage

Five 49ers to watch vs. Packers: George Kittle takes center stage

SANTA CLARA -- The 49ers know it is not going to be as easy as it was in Week 12, when they got off to a hot start and never let the Green Bay Packers into the game.

This time, the teams meet in the NFC Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium.

And the 49ers’ 37-8 Week 12 victory of Nov. 24 is a distant memory.

The 49ers and Packers have 14 wins apiece. In order for the 49ers to pick up another to advance to Super Bowl LIV in Miami, they need to get solid performances from a mix of proven veterans, youngsters and players on the rise.

Here are five 49ers to watch in Sunday's title bout:

5. LT Joe Staley

There were no guarantees Joe Staley would ever be back in this situation. But here he is, just one victory from returning to the Super Bowl. And Staley faces one of the most important head-to-head matchups that will determine who wins Sunday.

The Packers went out in free agency and came away with two edge rushers named Smith who have proven to be handfuls for opposing offensive tackles. Preston Smith lines up on one side. Za’Darius Smith is a force on the other side. Za'Darius Smith, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, has stepped in and given the Packers a presence off the edge.

He registered 13.5 sacks on the season, including 1.5 sacks in the Week 12 meeting against the 49ers. That game was one of nine during the regular season in which Staley was not available due to injuries. The veteran left tackle first fractured his lower leg and later had surgery to repair a fractured finger.

Since his return to the lineup, Staley has been playing like his six-time Pro Bowl self. He will have to be on top of his game Sunday to keep Jimmy Garoppolo comfortable in the pocket.

4. FS Jimmie Ward

While Staley, the longest-tenured 49ers player, certainly has invested a lot to continue his quest to return to a Super Bowl, there might not be a player on the team more deserving of playing on the big stage than Jimmie Ward.

Ward has overcome injury after injury after injury. He has overcome position change after position change after position change.

Finally, Ward has remained healthy for most of the season. Finally, he has a stable position. Ward is playing at a high level, and that will have to continue against an all-time great quarterback.

Aaron Rodgers is not a dink-and-dunk quarterback. He will want to push the ball down the field, and that is where Ward will play a significant role, as his job is to limit pass plays that pick up big chunks of yards. Ward must be on top of his game Sunday.

3. CB Emmanuel Moseley

Coach Kyle Shanahan is not saying whether Emmanuel Moseley or Ahkello Witherspoon is going to start at right cornerback. Moseley seems to be the logical choice after replacing a struggling Witherspoon in each of the past two games.

But if the 49ers go with Witherspoon, again, just scroll up one paragraph and insert his name. That’s because nothing really changes whether it’s Moseley or Witherspoon.

The Packers will look to exploit this matchup with Davante Adams. After all, they do not figure to test Pro Bowl performer Richard Sherman on the other side. Sherman typically does not shadow wide receivers. He stays on one side.

Adams is the Packers' most-dangerous threat in the passing game. He caught eight passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns in Green Bay’s 28-23 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round.

The key for the 49ers’ pass defense is getting pressure on the quarterback. The secondary will not be able to hold up all day, so it’s imperative for the 49ers that Dee Ford, Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead make Rodgers uncomfortable.

2. QB Jimmy Garoppolo

Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo did not have to do a whole lot for the 49ers to advance past the divisional round of the playoffs.

On Sunday, the 49ers will need him to do more because it is unlikely the 49ers will dominate on the ground as they did against the Vikings.

Few questions remain about Garoppolo, who has taken every meaningful snap for a team that won the NFC West, earned home-field advantage throughout the playoffs and rolled in the divisional round to get to the NFC Championship Game.

Now, it’s just a matter of producing on the big stage. And there’s only one venue bigger than Sunday’s game.

[RELATED: Sherman brings Hall-of-Fame credentials to 49ers' Super Bowl run]

1. TE George Kittle

All-Pro tight end George Kittle is the 49ers’ best player. And big games like this are all about great players.

Kittle has a huge impact on the game when the 49ers throw the ball. He has a huge impact on the game when the 49ers run the ball. It does not matter to him, though it seems he enjoys blocking as much as he likes piling up yards after the catch.

Kittle had a quiet game in the divisional round against the Minnesota Vikings. He had just three receptions for 16 yards. But his impact in the 49ers’ run game was quite loud. After a mid-week issue with his ankle, Kittle said he is feeling “fabulous.”

The 49ers will likely need Kittle at the top of his game to take advantage of some mismatches. If he produces big plays and yards after the catch, the 49ers likely will be making travel plans Miami.

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.