Three’s a crowd? Not when it comes to the 49ers’ surprising, impressive safety group

Peninsula Premier Admin

SANTA CLARA — Tashaun Gipson went from expendable to indispensable in less than a month and helped turn the last line of defense for the 49ers from a question mark to an exclamation point.

After missing five games for the Chicago Bears in 2021, Gipson was met with silence in free agency. A veteran of 10 years and 140 games with 132 starts, Gipson had just turned 32, was coming off a hip injury and was contemplating the end of the line.

“I missed five games, and that’s never good heading into your 11th season,” Gipson said Tuesday. “Teams are aware of those things. Father Time, he’s undefeated. When training camp has passed by and there’s no sign of anything, you begin to let doubt creep in.”

Gipson’s lifeline came in the form of a hamstring strain by 49ers safety Jimmie Ward. It was severe enough to put him on the injured reserve list for the first four games. Gipson made the Pro Bowl in 2014 with the Cleveland Browns, whose offensive coordinator that season was Kyle Shanahan.

The 49ers signed Gipson to the practice squad to see if he had anything left. He was activated and started in the opener against the Bears. The 49ers have played 504 defensive snaps this season, and Gipson has been on the field for 501 of them — more than any other defensive player.

“Obviously, when I got the call here it was just an awesome opportunity,” Gipson said. “I didn’t know where it would take me, I just knew I was going to try and take advantage.”

Gipson’s arrival has strengthened the defense at three positions in the secondary for a 49ers team that is 4-4 at the bye week. He provided a steady veteran presence, tackling skill and playmaking ability to go alongside second-year strong safety Talanoa Hufanga.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - OCTOBER 16: Talanoa Hufanga #29 of the San Francisco 49ers and Dontae Johnson #27 of the San Francisco 49ers tackle Marcus Mariota #1 of the Atlanta Falcons during the second quarter at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on October 16, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)
49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga brings down Atlanta quarterback Mariota on Oct. 16.

Ryan Clark, an ESPN analyst who played alongside Hall of Famer and Hufanga mentor Troy Polamalu in Pittsburgh, likened Gipson’s role to his own in playing in tandem with an instinctive playmaker.

In a conversation with Clark about Hufanga’s progress in late September, he said Gipson’s contribution was duly noted.

“It’s important to have a guy like Gip at the other safety, a veteran guy who understands it’s not his job to be a star, but to do his job at a high level, given his team another blade of grass to defend, and allow Talanoa to go out and make plays,” Clark said.

Hufanga is reluctant to compare Polamalu-Clark to Hufanga-Gipson, but said Gipson has contributed both confidence and knowledge to his game.

“Tashaun has helped me a tremendous amount,” Hufanga said. “You don’t want to compare us to legends like that, but in our own way, we’re trying to be the best versions of ourselves.”

With Gipson at free safety, the 49ers moved an initially reluctant Ward to slot corner after recovering from his hamstring injury and then a broken hand on Oct. 9. Ward had played as the nickel back before but felt he had established himself at safety.

Ranked as the league’s 96th best player in the NFL.com 100 list, Ward marched into Shanahan’s office upon learning his position would change.

“Basically what I told him is, ‘Hey, I ain’t going to play nickel,’ ” Ward said. “I went back and looked at my contract to see if they could do this to me. Nowhere in my contract did it say I’m just going to play safety. So let me swallow my pride, put my ego aside and be a captain and be a team player. That’s why coaches love me so much.”

The trio fits together nicely in terms of both playing style and personality. Gipson’s approach is measured and philosophical like the veteran he is, while Hufanga is humble and spiritual.

“He’s a quiet cat, he really just goes about his business, holds himself to a really high standard each and every day and a guy that does that is going to make great plays,” Hufanga said in describing Gipson.

Ward is energetic, outgoing and will exaggerate to make a point.

When Gipson arrived, Ward approached him immediately, and as time went on, came to realize stepping aside as a safety would better the team.

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp, left, runs the ball as San Francisco 49ers cornerback Jimmie Ward defends during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 30, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
49ers nickel back Jimmie Ward (1) helped keep wide receiver Cooper Kupp (10) under control against the Rams.

“I told him, ‘I respect your game, and I know you’re going to do your thing,’ ” Ward said. “This scheme fits him. He can cover. He can hit. He makes open-field tackles. When I came back, both he and Huf were playing so well. You know how this business goes. They got to get me on the field somehow. They’re paying me money so they put me at nickel.”

Ward struggled at nickel against Kansas City in his first extensive action wearing a wrapped cast on his broken left hand, although he said upon film review he had done better than he thought. In a 31-14 win over the Rams, Cooper Kupp had eight catches for 79 yards but just one for six yards in a 21-0 second half with Ward playing a major role.

“That’s the luxury of having a guy like Jimmie,” Gipson said. “He can come in and play all over the field. Having all three of us on the field has been pretty cool. I never could have scripted that. I just knew he was going to be out for four games and whatever was going to happen was going to happen. It’s just a blessing to be part of this.”

As for Hufanga, Gipson sees his further development as an important and rewarding part of his own job.

“Sometimes you’ve got to realize that some guys are equipped to handle certain things, and when you get a guy like Huf, you’ve got to let him do his thing,” Gipson said. “He’s such a dynamic player. He’s doing things not many safeties can do. His role in the defense gets bigger each week because of the type of player he is. Anyone needs someone they can depend on back there. We have a level of trust where he knows where I’m going to be at all times. I think we feed off each other.”

Contributed by local news sources

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