San Francisco 49ers first-round draft pick
Iron sharpens iron in the preseason, not just at training camp.
The prolific Peyton Manning-led offense boasts the NFL’s top passing attack from the 2013 season and looks to stay atop the league’s passing rankings. Denver’s group of talented pass-catchers features 11-year veteran receiver Wes Welker as a matchup nightmare in the slot.
Welker totaled 73 receptions, 778 receiving yards and a career-high 10 touchdowns in his first season with the Broncos last year. Welker caught two passes for seven yards in his preseason debut last week.
Ward, a fan of Manning’s for some time, is also well aware of Welker’s slithery route-running.
“I feel like it’s going to be good work and something I can study off of throughout the whole season,” Ward said on Wednesday, days after competing against Baltimore Ravens slot receiver Jacoby Jones in the exhibition opener and three more joint practices in Owings Mills, Md.
Ward’s increased repetitions at slot cornerback were by design.
“We’ve given him a lot of reps there trying to get him to learn the position,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “There’s a lot to learn there.”
Ward’s safety experience at Northern Illinois has carried over into his slot duties with San Francisco.
“It’s all about leverage,” he said. “Playing nickel, you have to have great leverage and you need to know where your help is on the field. Then, you have to fit into the run… You have to be mentally and physically sharp.”
As Fangio pointed out, the nickel cornerback becomes another linebacker.
“He has to learn how to play zones from a linebacker’s perspective,” Fangio said. “He has to play man on a slot. He has to know his correct leverage and help where it is, etcetera.”
Come Sunday, Ward will have another platform to display his growth in the 49ers defense. It also happens to be against a high-power offense that also hard-charging second-year running back in Montee Ball.
Oh, and then there’s Manning, the five-time NFL MVP.
“I’m going to have to stay in the playbook, listen to my coaches and get help from my vets, too, because they’ve played against him,” Ward said of the elite passer, who is unlikely to play beyond the first quarter. “I look forward to it. I think it’ll help me get better at the end of the day.”
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