SANTA CLARA — Sprinting toward the middle of the field in the first quarter against the Washington Redskins, 49ers free safety Jimmie Ward upended Redskins running back Adrian Peterson, preventing what would have been 70-yard touchdown run on the opening drive of the game.
“You should have just been down here a lot faster,” Jaquiski Tartt told Ward once he got back to the huddle.
As best friends and former high school teammates in Alabama, Tartt and Ward’s unique rapport is at the heart of the NFL’s best passing defense. It’s this special chemistry that the 49ers hope to ride as their defense continues to ascend this season.
“Have you ever seen the movie ‘Life’ with Martin Lawrence?’” 49ers starting cornerback Richard Sherman said this week. “Those two are like that in the movie. They’ve known each other for way too long and they’re hilarious to hear … They’re like an old married couple back there, man.”
Despite having mutual friends and attending some of the same social functions growing up in Mobile, Ala., the two didn’t become close until Tartt joined the Davidson High School football team in 2009. Tartt had been a basketball star, but wanted to see how he’d fare as a football player headed into his senior year.
“He used to play football back like we were younger,” Ward said. “He used to be one of the best players on his team in Pop Warner. So he always had it in him.”
While Tartt now is one of the more vocal players in a vocal secondary, he was — at that time — very quiet. That soon changed, as the two helped lead the Warriors to a Class 6A Region 1 football championship appearance, though they fell short of the title.
It was in the middle of that season when Tartt witnessed just how talented Ward was as a defensive back, and as a tackler.
“One of the most impressive plays I saw him make was against an SEC guy named Jared Williams,” Tartt said. “He was in the wildcat and Jimmie met him on fourth down and flipped him … That’s when I knew nobody could mess with Jimmie. It had me crunked.”
Even back then, though, Tartt made it a point to take friendly jabs.
“I just like messing with him,” Tartt said. “To get under his skin is the world to me, so I do everything to get under his skin. At the end of the day, he knows it’s all love. Like even though he makes good plays, I still try to critique them.”
This trash talk between the two has carried over to their professional careers in San Francisco, as both have become key starters for the No. 1 passing defense in the NFL, which allows just 133 yards per game through the air.
“You’ll go into the huddle sometimes and they’ll be arguing about something,” Sherman said. “It’s like ‘What? Are you guys even in the same game as me right now? What are y’all talking about?’ ‘Well ‘Quaski did this.’ and ‘Jimmie did that.’ It’s fun, man, and I enjoy it.”
Amid their bickering, as one 49ers player put it, Tartt and Ward still look out for each other on and off the field, as Ward battled through an array of injuries — including seven broken bones — during his first six seasons with San Francisco.
“Just him being a good friend, he would hit me up,” Ward said. “We’d talk on the phone and he would just mention and say some positive stuff like, ‘Hey bro, keep your head up.’”
Now healthy and back on the field this season, Ward and Tartt’s bond allows them to communicate effectively during games, sometimes without saying a word. They’ve developed a feel for each other’s position before snaps.
“They have a funny way of communicating with one another,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “When it comes to the defense, they do a really good job of playing off of one another … It just helps those guys and it really helps the defense.”
When the 49ers dismantled the Los Angeles Rams in Week 5, Tartt and Ward helped hold Jared Goff to a career-low 78 passing yards and improving their record to 5-0. After the game, Sherman repeated Tartt and Ward’s names over and over at the press conference podium, exhorting the public to remember their names.
Now 6-0 and looking to propel San Francisco to its first playoff berth since 2014, with Carolina coming to town on Sunday, Tartt and Ward say there’s still an abundance of progress to be made to sharpen their play.
“Right now it sounds good on paper, but we’ve still got a long season, so a lot can change right now,” Ward said. “That’s how we’re going to win if we keep having these great practices and communicate and building chemistry staying healthy. Hopefully that’ll lead to the game and we get them [wins].”
“To me it’s fun,” Tartt added. “But yeah, Sherm is right, it pretty much is like a marriage for us.”