The 49ers made one thing very clear in the offseason. They had faith in their young defensive backs to develop and become productive even while many observers called their secondary one of the NFL’s worst in 2018.
Yet coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch held their ground and decided to invest premium resources in improving the pass rush rather than the defensive backfield.
“A lot of our resources have gone there because Kyle and I both believe that you’ve got to hit the quarterback and you’ve got to bring him down,” Lynch said this summer.
They hoped players such as Ahkello Witherspoon and Tarvarius Moore would take the necessary steps as they got propped up by a much-improved defensive line infused with rookie Nick Bosa and veteran Dee Ford.
Witherspoon’s evolution is particularly important given the value of cornerbacks in the pass-happy NFL. Teams clearly prefer not to throw to Richard Sherman’s side of the field, which led to Witherspoon becoming a vacuum for targets from quarterbacks.
Through the prism of a one-game sample size, the returns are paying off after Witherspoon, who went to Christian Brothers High in Sacramento, was in and out of the lineup due to inconsistent play during his uninspiring second season in 2018.
In Sunday’s victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 2017 third-round pick had the best performance of his career. He had three pass breakups, a personal best, and the game-sealing pick-six fell into his lap just outside the two-minute warning.
Sherman following Sunday’s game noted Witherspoon’s improved mindset, highlighted by an ability to bounce back from mistakes, like overplaying the ball and not sticking to his assignments, and overreacting to coverage busts whether they were his fault or a teammate’s.
“I noticed it during the entire the offseason and then especially in training camp,” Sherman said Thursday. “There would be moments that he responded to a certain way last year and the same exact moments, or similar moments, came up this training camp and he responded totally differently. And it’s just growth. I think it’s just growth as a player, as a man, as a human being.
“Everybody has their different phases of growth and when they really started to get it. And I think he really started to understand just where he is and what he’s capable of and how he should react to certain situations. It’s awesome to see.”
Witherspoon and Sherman both returned picks for touchdowns after the 49ers went the entire 2018 season without a cornerback getting a single interception. It was a sign the pass rush is making an impact while the secondary continues to develop.
For Witherspoon, the reasoning behind his apparent improvement is simple.
“Going through and learning from my previous mistakes, I think that’s the biggest key,” he said this week. “Knowing I’ve done it wrong in the past, and then when you are in the fire again, knowing how to approach it differently.”
The 49ers held star receiver Mike Evans, who was coming off an illness days before the game, to just two catches for 28 yards, which was paramount in limiting the Buccaneers offense to just 295 yards. Jameis Winston had a 45.4 passer rating thanks to three interceptions after San Francisco allowed a 105.4 passer rating throughout last season, the second-worst mark in the NFL.
Evans and Witherspoon swapped jerseys after the game, with the big-bodied receiver giving the 23-year-old cornerback some lofty praise.
“I don’t know if I’m supposed to say this,” said Witherspoon, “but he was asking me if we knew the offense. I said, ‘No, we’re just out here playing ball, but thanks for the compliment.’ It was crazy.”
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has also noticed differences in the physical side of Witherspoon’s game, which could allow him to better utilize his size that made him an appealing prospect during the draft process. Witherspoon ranked in the 90th percentile or better in height (6-foot-3), arm length (33 inches) and vertical jump (40 1/2 inches).
“I think he’s done a great job this offseason of attacking the weight room,” Saleh said. “With the new strength crew and all that, he’s really attacked that. You can feel more strength when he’s out there. He’s stronger, the jump ball he had with Mike Evans a year ago he would’ve just gotten nudged and launched out of there and Mike probably would’ve made a catch. This year, he’s got a bigger body, he feels stronger, he’s playing with good confidence, great technique and so he’s pulling his game together.”
There’s a different kind of challenge facing Witherspoon in Week 2 against the Cincinnati Bengals. Evans (6-5, 230) has a unique blend of size, strength and coordination. Cincinnati’s most imposing wideout, with A.J. Green likely sidelined with an ankle injury, is third-year pro John Ross (5-11, 194), who’s coming off a 158-yard, two-touchdown performance in the season opening loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
Ross broke the record at the 2017 combine for the 40-yard dash, posting a blistering 4.22. On Sunday he scored touchdowns from 33 and 55 yards.
“Thankfully,” Robert Saleh said, “with our guys, you’ve got Marquise (Goodwin) out there and all that, so they get that work in. John Ross, obviously, is a very fast human being and he’s more of a jitterbug, but we see it from our guys. We’ve gotten a chance to see it with Tyreek Hill in the preseason, so they’ve gotten work at it, so I don’t think there will be an adjustment for it.”