After an exciting rookie season, reality has begun to set in for second-year corner Ahkello Witherspoon. Most fans imagined that under the tutelage of veteran corner Richard Sherman, Witherspoon would improve this year — but the former Colorado defensive back has regressed.
Disappointing performances and a benching later, Witherspoon continued to have a tough season against the Giants on Monday Night Football last week. To add to his on-field struggles, 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan was also not happy with Witherspoon’s actions after multiple completions.
When asked about his opinion on Witherspoon’s negative gestures, Shanahan added “Man up. Don’t put that on tape. We’ll deal with it when we come in.”
The 49ers’ starting corner was also asked about his antics, he chimed in, “I was just mad at myself for allowing a touchdown. Can’t do that,” Witherspoon said. “I know that, playing corner, I know I got to be better than that, and it’s something I got to improve on.”
It sure was a rough outing for Witherspoon, who was targeted nine times, giving up two catches and two penalties — one was a 16-yard penalty that was accepted, the other was declined. On numerous occasions, Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning should have hit the open receiver, but wasn’t able to take advantage.
On the Giants’ first-quarter touchdown, wideout Odell Beckham Jr. is lined up in the slot and the 49ers’ employ a zone defense. While Witherspoon doesn’t line up across from Beckham Jr. before the snap, there’s no 49ers’ defender that follows the Giants’ best wideout into the end zone.
Beckham Jr. finds the soft spot behind three 49ers’ defenders and makes an easy touchdown catch. On this play, Witherspoon is in no-man’s land, defending an area with no receivers even close. It is inexcusable for the second-year corner to not try and stay with Beckham Jr and make a play on the ball.
Later in the second frame, Witherspoon’s now defending Giants’ wide receiver Bennie Fowler, who runs a dig route. The ex-Colorado cornerback is in good position in this play, as Manning throws low for an incompletion. Much better defense here by Witherspoon against the Giants’ fourth receiving option.
Two plays later, Witherspoon is now lined up across from the dangerous wideout Sterling Shepard. At the top of the route, Witherspoon holds Shepard and is flagged for illegal contact. However, the Giants declined the penalty as Sherman was flagged for defensive pass interference on the other side of the field. On third down, the 49ers have to get off the field and can’t afford these penalties in the future.
Now in the third quarter, Witherspoon is defending Beckham Jr in one-on-one coverage, with safety help over the top. The 49ers’ defender does an excellent job staying step for step with the speedy ex-LSU product, as Manning has to force a difficult throw in the back of the end zone for an incompletion.
On the next play, Witherspoon is in the same spot, but 49ers’ safety Antone Exum Jr. is shading the other side of the field. The 49ers’ second-year corner has to recognize that the help won’t get to him and try to stay with Beckham Jr. The Giants’ superstar blows by Witherspoon, allowing for an easy 20-yard touchdown reception.
Witherspoon has to do a better job of pressing Beckham Jr. on this play. Not holding him at the line of scrimmage, allows Beckham Jr. to make his move and get free. To see how it’s done, look at the top of the screen, as Sherman presses Shepard.
Not only did Witherspoon have poor coverage on the play, he immediately throws up his hands in disgust, trying to blame Exum Jr. for not getting over the top quickly enough. For a young corner in the NFL, it’s inexcusable to start showing antics on the field after a blown coverage. Witherspoon has to just move onto the next play, not showing his frustration on the field for the world to see.
In the final frame, Witherspoon is once again on a tough assignment, matched up against Beckham Jr. The ex-Tiger puts a double move on Witherspoon and is able to create 10 yards of separation. A poor and under-thrown ball from Manning allows Witherspoon to get back in the picture and make the deflection. A properly thrown ball and that’s six for the Giants. Witherspoon can’t be so aggressive to bite on the underneath route.
In late-game situations, Witherspoon has to have better situational awareness. On 2nd-and-20, the 49ers have to do everything possible to get off the field and not earn any drive-extending penalties. While it seems ticky-tack, Witherspoon was called for a 16-yard defensive pass interference, that was brutal. It kept the drive alive and allowed for the Giants to win the game a few plays later. The 49ers’ second-year corner has to be more aware of the magnitude of the game and the receiver he’s covering.
There continue to be flashes of greatness from the former Buffalo, but it’s perplexing why Witherspoon doesn’t put it all together for 60 minutes. His defensive game seems to be more of a roller coaster this season. Sherman has been phenomenal locking down one corner spot, but the 49ers are bleeding yards on the opposite side of the field. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh better find the band-aid to fix this problem soon.