49ers' contingency plans at safety center on a pair of rookies

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Dealing with injuries at safety has been a fact of life for the San Francisco 49ers since they reconvened in late July. During training camp, they were without Eric Reid, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt for varying lengths of time.

Of that group, only Ward missed an extended period, as he sat for almost all of the preseason and training camp with a hamstring injury. Fast forward through the first two weeks of the season and the Niners are still dealing with injuries at the position. The biggest difference is that now Ward is the healthiest of the aforementioned trio.

Niners coach Kyle Shanahan announced on Monday that Reid, the team's starting strong safety, would miss this week's game against the Los Angeles Rams with an injury to the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. Reid is expected to miss a few weeks.

Tartt, meanwhile, might be the most important name on the 49ers' injury report this week. He started the first two games at free safety but moved to strong after Reid suffered his injury on Sunday. His versatility allows the Niners to mix and match but he is dealing with a neck issue that left Shanahan declaring him questionable for this week.

But Tartt did participate in Tuesday's practice and was moving around without much issue, offering hope that he'll be ready to go on Thursday.

As for Ward, he made it through his first appearance of the season against the Seahawks without any issue and looks poised to start at free safety against the Rams. Still, the 49ers will be cognizant that he's coming off injury.

“He held up well," defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. "The feedback was good, feels good. Man, he looked fast, too. So, it’s good to have him back. Hopefully he can stay healthy.”

If things work out how the Niners hope, they'll have Tartt and Ward ready to start on Thursday night. Either way, they will be looking to rookies Adrian Colbert and Lorenzo Jerome to offer depth. Colbert was a seventh-round pick in this year's draft and Jerome was an undrafted free agent.

If Tartt can't play, one of those rookies would have to step into the starting strong safety role. Neither Colbert nor Jerome necessarily look the part of the big, physical strong safety capable of playing near the line of scrimmage, but Saleh believes they could do it.

“You have a prototype, but I think football players come in all shapes and sizes," Saleh said. "They have all kinds of measurables. Yeah, you’d love to have a certain measurable, but right now the men we have in our room have to get it done.”

In some ways, the early spate of safety injuries the Niners suffered in training camp has them better positioned to deal with the most recent issues. Colbert was playing cornerback until there were enough injuries that the Niners simply needed him to move to safety.

Colbert fared well enough on the back end that the 49ers have kept him there and he's actually spent the time since bouncing between both safety spots so he could step in at either one if need be.

"I’ll be ready," Colbert said. "The coaches have been preparing me for the last couple weeks and if my name gets called, I’ve just got to go out there and show what I can do. I would play wherever they asked me to play whether it be free or strong. I feel like I’m ready for it."

Unlike other defensive schemes where safeties can be interchangeable, Saleh's system has clearly defined roles. The strong safety spends most of his time near the line of scrimmage, serving as sort of a de facto fourth linebacker with the ability to help against the run. The free safety is the last line of defense and is often left alone on the back end defending the deep middle of the field.

When it comes to communication, there are also some differences.

"The biggest difference to me is just making the checks, making the calls, alerting certain things in different formations," Colbert said.

Based on how the preseason played out, Jerome would seem the more likely bet to be the Niners' third safety than Colbert. Jerome started games in place of Ward during the exhibition season and he said the scheme is similar to what he's done in the past.

"My comfort level is actually perfect," Jerome said. "I’ve been doing it since high school, I’ve been doing it since college, so wherever coach needs me to play, I’ll play."