Sakamoto: 49ers New Defensive Scheme Features Press-Man Coverage, Brock and Ward To Start?

On an island? That is what I’m hearing from Levi’s Stadium. No, I’m not talking about San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick but rather the team’s cornerbacks. A young defensive unit with untapped potential, the question remains who will be the team’s starting cornerbacks week 1.

While the 49ers coaching staff remains mum on declaring starters, I will save you the speculation, all but guaranteeing that CB Tramaine Brock and DB Jimmie Ward will be the two men responsible for shutting down the other team’s best wide receivers.

To me, Brock is better suited for press-zone coverage, but that scheme doesn’t appear to be in the cards with DC Jim O’Neil at the helm. Instead, the 49ers will likely go press-man coverage, enabling safeties FS Eric Reid and SS Antoine Bethea more freedom to roam closer to the line of scrimmage.

Reid spoke with 49ers beat writers yesterday in regards to the team’s new scheme and confirmed man-coverage would be in place. “We have zones [zone coverage] but not so heavy on zones. It just makes it easier to be on a receiver [cornerback] to make a play.” Sounds like O’Neil and company has the utmost confidence that T-Brock and Ward can handle their own with little to no safety help over the top.

Ward agreed with my assessment the other day that playing both safety and slot at NIU has helped expedite his learning curve as an outside corner. “Definitely! Just seeing everything and knowing where my help’s [safety] at. That’s the main thing about nickel and corner too is just knowing where your help is at,” Ward said.

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During our earlier annual pre-draft interview with 49ers GM Trent Baalke, he singled out Ward as one of the players who has made huge strides since coming into the NFL.

“A year ago [rookie season] we heard how Jimmie Ward was a bust. Well look at the last eight games of this season [year two] and tell me how Jimmie Ward’s playing,” Baalke said.

The numbers don’t lie. Ward was the third best cornerback in the NFL during the final five-game stretch with an overall Pro Football Focus grade of +7.6.

A playmaker with some serious ball-hawking skills, look for Ward to have a breakout season, as I believe he will record at least five interceptions with double-digit PBUs (Pass Break-Ups) in 2016. We all saw Ward’s rise as a potential premier shutdown cornerback, now he will have the opportunity to solidify that billing with a solid junior season.

So far in training camp, Ward has looked the part. He has been swarming to the football, rarely giving up the big play (although he did give up a 40-yard TD to WR Jerome Simpson on Day 2). But other than that, Ward continues to be one of my top five players so far in camp.

As for Brock, his play has been inconsistent to say the least. After breaking out in 2013 with a career-high five interceptions and 13 PBUs, T-Brock hasn’t been the same. He has too many mental lapses in coverage while nagging injuries have stunted his growth as full-fledged NFL starter. Nonetheless, it appears the 49ers coaches are set on T-Brock relishing a starting role.

I asked 49ers DBC Jeff Hafley who he believes stands out in terms of being a press-man corner, and he singled out T-Brock as the most polished. “I think Brock’s done a nice job on his press,” Hafley said. And I have to agree. In my video above you can see T-Brock working the tackle sled with ease during individual press drills, while rookie CB Rashard Robinson naturally looks the part.


But now that I brought up Robinson, you’re probably wondering if he can win the job. While Coach O’Neil said nothing is set in stone, Robinson is still learning the nuances of the NFL game. I routinely see him absorbing advice from veterans when coming off the field, all while working closely with Coach Hafley on his mental mistakes.

Don’t get me wrong. In my opinion, Robinson is the most naturally gifted press-corner on the team. But with that being said, I don’t think that’s a good enough endorsement right now, to warrant a starting role.

To think T-Brock and Ward will not open up as the Week 1 starters is naive. Brock has the experience, leadership, and football savvy to thrive, while Ward has Pro Bowl potential. Both players will be counted on heavily in 2016 and will be instrumental to the defense’s success.

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Ryan is the Founder/CEO of, 49ers Beat Writer, Live Game Day Correspondent for Bleacher Report and member of Pro Football Writers of America. Born and raised in San Jose, he also graduated from San Diego State University. His work has been featured on NFL Network, 95.7 The Game, National Football Post, Sports Illustrated, FanSided Network, ESPN Radio, CBS Sports 810, and NBC Bay Area News. For more information, please contact him via email at or call him at (408) 622-0996.