Thearon W. Henderson / Contributor
The moment Richard Sherman signed a three-year contract with the 49ers in March, Ahkello Witherspoon’s role changed.
Witherspoon came into his own as his rookie season progressed in 2017. He bulked up over the offseason and worked with Sherman and many of the other top cornerbacks in the league at an exclusive cornerback summit. Sherman included Witherspoon because he thought the 23-year-old could hold his own.
The Sherman acquisition meant Witherspoon would see increased targets. Through Sherman’s seven years in the NFL, he was targeted fewer times than anyone else, and that figured to continue until he showed signs of decline. That has not happened yet.
Witherspoon was expected to make the jump as a big-time cornerback in his second year. So far, that has not happened, either.
Per Pro Football Focus, Witherspoon allowed eight catches on 12 targets for 99 yards and two touchdowns last Sunday. Witherspoon was banged up with hip and ankle injuries entering the game, but 49ers players and coaches have maintained a simple message: if you play, you’re held to the same standard as everyone else.
Witherspoon’s first glaring mistake was biting on a simple play-action, disregarding his assignment, and allowing a 30-yard touchdown to give the Lions the first-quarter lead. The Lions constantly tested Witherspoon in the second half. The Lions actually missed a couple deep passes intended for Witherspoon’s man, which would have inflated his coverage numbers even more.
Backup cornerback Jimmie Ward substituted for Witherspoon on 20 snaps last Sunday. That was not because Witherspoon was injured or needed a break.
“We felt other people at that time gave us the best chance,” Shanahan said. “Yeah, that was crunch time.”
Witherspoon had the worst performance of his young career. Now, his teammates and coaches want to see him respond.
On Thursday, Robert Saleh was asked whether Witherspoon will start in Sunday’s matchup at Kansas City, and the 49ers defensive coordinator didn’t provide a straightforward answer. That likely has to do with the state of Witherspoon’s health. Saleh is confident Witherspoon, who has been praised for his work ethic, will bounce back the next time he suits up.
“With a guy like Ahkello, obviously, they’re going to face adversity,” Saleh said. “How they bounce back from diversity will define them for the rest of their future or career. So, you do talk to them. I don’t want to say it’s expected, but at the same time it’s being able to push, especially at the corner position. You’ve got to let the last play go. You’ve got to move on to the next one, and I think Ahkello is really good at that. He’s got a strong mind. He’s ready to work. He’s built the right way.”
Sherman has also backed Witherspoon. After last Sunday’s win, Sherman said Witherspoon has 24 hours to watch film and harp on his mistakes before moving on. Four days later Sherman reiterated that message.
“Next play. next game— that’s the mentality you always have to have as a corner: short term memory,” Sherman said. “I think he is going to respond well, given the opportunity.”
Sherman misses practice
Last week, every 49ers starting defensive back was battling an injury of some type — other than Richard Sherman.
Fast forward a week, and Sherman has been added to the list.
Sherman did not practice Thursday with an injured heel, which is likely correlated to the torn Achilles he suffered last November. His omission from practice comes as a surprise, considering Sherman held a press conference about an hour before and made no mention of the injury. He did not walk with a limp.
He was not obviously hurt in San Francisco’s 30-27 win over Detroit last Sunday. In fact, he was his typical dominant self, allowing no catches. He has allowed just one catch through two games, asserting himself as one of the top cornerbacks in the league.
Richard Sherman among qualifying CBs after two weeks.
One catch allowed in 99 coverage snaps (1st)
Targeted once every 24.75 coverage snaps (1st)
Allowing 0.18 yards per coverage snap (2nd)#49ers
— PFF SF 49ers (@PFF_49ers) September 17, 2018
The other two non-participants in Thursday’s practice were Jaquiski Tartt (shoulder) and Joshua Garnett (toe).
Breida wins weekly rushing award
Matt Breida won the Fedex Ground Player of the Week award after rushing 11 times for 138 yards and one touchdown last Sunday. Breida beat out Denver running back Phillip Lindsay and Atlanta running back Tevin Coleman.
Breida’s 184 yards lead the NFL through two weeks. Alfred Morris played five more snaps than him last week, however, and the split duties may continue moving forward. Kyle Shanahan has reiterated that their workloads will be divvied depending on varying personnel, plays, and game situations.