No. 1: Fred Warner and Jimmie Ward vs. Saints tight ends
Quietly, safety Jimmie Ward re-signing in the offseason has been one of the most important free-agent moves of the season.
Ward, the former first-round pick in 2014 out of Northern Illinois, had suffered from season-ending injuries in four of his five seasons in San Francisco. Still, the 49ers liked him enough to offer him a one-year “prove it” deal this summer.
And the safety has responded with the best season of his career so far.
Ward has posted either elite or near-elite grades in most Pro Football Focus defensive categories, including run defense (85.0), coverage (84.6) and overall defense (89.1). And he’s currently the third ranked safety, according to their metrics.
He’s been a key contributor to the best pass defense in the NFL according to Football Outsiders’ DVoA (minus-45.0 percent), and single handedly forced Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers off the field on several occasions in Week 12 against Green Bay.
On Sunday, he’ll be charged with helping the 49ers keep the Saints tight ends under wraps, along with linebacker Fred Warner, who has been emerging as one of the best linebackers in the NFL in his second season out of BYU.
Warner was recently named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month for November, posting some insane numbers over that time:
He also showed some versatility on Sunday by carrying Ravens rookie wide receiver Marquise Brown (who is very fast) downfield and forcing a pass breakup.
The duo of Ward and Warner will be keep an eye on Saints tight ends Josh Hill and Jared Cook, who have combined for 51 catches for 641 yards and five touchdowns this season. The pair are PFF’s 25th and 29th ranked tight ends in 2019.
They may not be as formidable as someone like George Kittle, but they are more than capable, especially with Drew Brees throwing passes.
So it will be up to Ward and Warner to force the Saints offense into being more one-dimensional than they’d like, taking away as many options outside of Michael Thomas as possible.