49ers: Three players with most on the line as season nears its end
If rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon learns a little more with every start, Sunday’s figures to deliver a master’s course worth of knowledge.
Witherspoon and the rest of the 49ers’ young secondary will be tasked with stopping the No. 2 receiver in the league this year, Houston’s DeAndre Hopkins. He’s been targeted 141 times and has 1,084 receiving yards, both of which lag behind only the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antonio Brown.
Witherspoon (Christian Brothers High School) noted that Hopkins is similar to Los Angeles Rams wideout Sammy Watkins – both played at Clemson – who had a season-high 106 receiving yards and two touchdowns when the Rams and 49ers played in Week 3.
Witherspoon was inactive for that game, but recalled Watkins using his hands and arms to get separation, something Hopkins does as well. He’s started the last five games opposite Dontae Johnson and said he’s eager to go against Hopkins.
“On film he’s very physical,” Witherspoon said. “(He’s) not always perfect early on in the route, but when it’s time to make a break he’s going to be physical with the (defensive back). He’s got very aggressive hands. He goes up and gets the ball well.”
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh stressed that San Francisco’s entire secondary – not just Witherspoon – will have to contend with Hopkins. That’s because Houston will line him up in different spots throughout the game, including at slot receiver.
“It’s all 11 (defenders),” Saleh said. “We’ve been doing a really good job. We’ve been steadily improving as the year has gone. Especially since that Dallas game.”
Fresher 49ers? – The 49ers defense played only 36 snaps Sunday, less than half of the 73 they’d been averaging heading into the game against the Bears. They’ve led the league in defensive snaps played for most of the season but are now behind the Kansas City Chiefs and New York Giants in that category.
“It was awesome to be able to sit back and watch the offense go to work,” Saleh said. “You don’t get many opportunities at that. I don’t care what team you play for. You just don’t get opportunities to be able to be a spectator as much. So, it was pretty cool.”
Defensive players this week said they’ve felt a little more bounce in their steps.
“I felt it in practice (Wednesday) just running to the ball,” Witherspoon said. “Just a little bit more energy, a little more juice.”
Injuries – Tackle Trent Brown (shoulder) was limited in Thursday’s practice after sitting out Wednesday. Defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Earl Mitchell were given so-called “vet days” and did not practice.