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Kyle Shanahan talks Nick Mullens, Ahkello Witherspoon, injuries, last two weeks

The 49ers head coach was available to the media to wrap up the win over the Seattle Seahawks. We have a full transcript.

Opening comments:

“From yesterday, [CB] Ahkello [Witherspoon], he ended up having a PCL sprain. It’ll take a few weeks. He’ll be on IR for the rest of this year. [RB Matt] Breida, ankle, checked out fine this morning. [DB Tarvarius] Moore, ribs, checked out fine this morning. [S Jaquiski] Tartt, still dealing with his stinger. We’ll see on Wednesday whether he has a chance to go this week. Same situation with [CB] K’Waun [Williams] with his knee.”

No more Ahkello this year. How do you assess his 2018 season?

“We’ll look at all the tape and put it all together. Wish he could’ve finished these last two games. I think he definitely was finishing better than he started. But, his story is not written yet. He’s got to improve. Hopefully, he’ll come back here ready to go next year and take off the way he finished.”

What areas in particular did you see growth in him over the last few weeks?

“I thought he got a lot better in his coverage. Just more consistent. Playing a little more physical in his coverage, too. I know he had some PI calls over the last month, ones that I wouldn’t want him to play differently. I thought he did a real good job on all those. I liked how he got more aggressive throughout the year.”

What adjustments would you like to see him make going into this full offseason? Obviously, similar to last year when he ended on a strong note. But, the second season didn’t get off to the start that he wanted.

“Just coming out the gate the way he finished. Being aggressive with his hands at the line of scrimmage, being aggressive in his coverage and the pass game and of course always doing the same thing in the run.”

Tarvarius Moore, I’m guessing, will be starting in his place?


What did you see out of him yesterday that you’ve kind of been waiting to see?

“Yeah, I was excited to see him play. I know they challenged him a number of times and he missed some plays, but I liked how he rebounded throughout the game. Similar to what I was trying to describe with [WR Dante] Pettis versus Tampa where Tampa was the first time we kind of left him out there just let him play through things. That was the situation with Tarvarius yesterday. Stuff that he struggled on earlier, I thought he did better in the fourth quarter. He plays physical. He doesn’t mind hitting. He showed that on special teams. He carried it over to the defense and looks like he had fun out there. Looked like it wasn’t too big for him. He challenged guys at the line. He made a huge block, too, on special teams on [WR] Richie’s [James Jr.] kick return too, which sprung him loose.”

Who else had blocks on that one that stood out

“A lot of guys. We had a good double-team by [LB Mark] Nzeocha and [LB] James Onwualu, by James and Nzeocha. It was a good job by [TE Ross] Dwelley, too. He had a good block for a second, and then he started to lose to him. That’s something we’ve made some mistakes in, where guys just start to lose the block and they try too hard to recover and they end up getting a clip or a holding or something. He did a great job once he lost it just letting go. So, Richie got right by him and didn’t get a cheap call on it.”

S Marcell Harris had kind of a nice learning curve from the first game to the second game. Did he continue that in the third?

“Yes. He was definitely, definitely much better this game than he was versus Seattle the original time. I know he took a step in the right direction versus Denver. I thought it continued yesterday. Definitely a few plays that he’d like to have back, so by no means was it perfect. But, what I liked about him is he competes. Even when he does mess up, he’s doing it full speed. He doesn’t mind tackling. He throws his body around and made a really key play on a screen. I think it was the second-and-long where they had a good play call. They had a screen on us in a three by one versus pressure. So, there was only one guy left and it was Marcell with lead blockers. He did a good job. I think he tackled him for a six-yard gain when if he doesn’t do that, it probably would’ve been a 50-yard gain.”

I know it’s circumstantial, but in the limited sample size, you’re seven and one in December since coming here. What do you attribute it to? Are you sensing that guys are just executing at a higher level just being in sort of a rhythm at this point in the year?

“You get better the more you play. I think we’ve given guys a lot of opportunities in these two years to play. I don’t think they have gotten it right away. But, when you’ve got the right guys and they continue to work at it, I think they naturally get better. I don’t know if that’s the exact reason it’s happened in these two seasons. We have played a lot of younger guys. We talked about it last year with the [WR] Trent Taylor’s and [WR Kendrick] Bourne’s and Ahkello and [DB Adrian] Colbert and same thing, a little bit more similar this year. The guys have gotten better as they’ve gone and that’s a good sign for those guys.”

What adjustments can you make or are you going to look at making some of those adjustments to where you get the team playing sort of at this level early next season?

“Yeah. You try to look into everything. We don’t do much different schematically. I do think we have been playing better the last month or so. But, I think that’s just trying to get guys better and better. Even when we took a step in the right direction last year, it doesn’t mean at all that you’ve arrived. You better not ever think you’re close to arriving. You’ve always got to realize that you’re either getting better or worse. We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got to get better every single day. You don’t stop thinking that way until you win a Super Bowl. Then, if you stop thinking that way right after that, you’ll never win one again. So, it’s just a mindset you’ve got to always keep. You’ve got to come to earn your check every single day and everyone’s got to know that.”

What do you make of the defense getting three straight stops to close the game? Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson is notorious for fourth-quarter and late-game heroics, but those last two drives in regulation and the first one in overtime--?

“It was huge. When the offense had an opportunity at the end after they made that first stop, I thought we had to put them away right there and we didn’t. You leave a good player like Russell hanging around, usually he makes you pay for that. I thought our defense stepped it up huge, got a couple calls, got them off the field and gave the offense a chance a couple times to come back out there. Finally got it done in overtime.”

Box score stats may not have shown it, but it seemed like DL Solomon Thomas was pretty active yesterday. Drew a couple holds. What kind of steps have you see him take here recently?

“I think he’s gotten better each week. He’s gotten to play more. He’s gotten to play more inside more consistently. He’s been thrown in a lot of spots that he’s fought his way through and I think he’s gotten better doing it. I thought he had two of his biggest plays that he’s had here. It doesn’t show up in the stat sheet, but he had a crucial, they rolled out to the right, I believe it was a third down. I think it was the third-and-four. He beat their right guard, got some penetration, made Russell roll back the other way and got [DL DeForest Buckner] Buck a sack on that. Then, he generated the holding call on the final one that got the big one to [Seattle Seahawks RB J.D.] McKissic. He did it by beating the guy. If he wouldn’t have, he wouldn’t have been able to get that sack. So, it was two huge plays by him.”

Was it any more or less meaningful for you to get the win yesterday, especially when you get big contributions from undrafted free agents, players taken in late rounds?

“It excites you. We’re trying to build the best team possible here. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what round it is or whether you’re a rookie or a free agent from somewhere else. We want people here who can help turn this around and help get us a consistent winner and get us to where we want to go. That takes everybody, from the bottom of the roster to the top. The more people can do, the more they’re going to be a part of the solution. That’s what we want to see from guys and seeing more and more of it each week.”

A lot of those opportunities come, obviously, at the expense of others with injuries like we saw with RB Jeff Wilson Jr. In these last two games, is there any effort by maybe the coaching staff, if there are more opportunities to put some of those players in to see what you have for next year or is that more in the spring?

“Yeah, you try to do that, especially this time of the year. Kind of as I’ve been saying for the last month, you don’t just do it to do it. Football is a violent game. A lot goes into it. Guys work way too hard. You do everything you can to win the game. We’ve had a pretty good idea that we haven’t been going to the playoffs for a while here. That doesn’t just mean that we’re playing everyone. It’s not preseason. We’re trying to give the guys that earned the spot to play, who gives us the best chance to win. If you’re ever at a spot where it is a tie at this time of year and you could go with either one but you’ve got to pick between one, like to give the guy the opportunity who we haven’t seen as much from this year. That’s really what we’ve done in those decisions.”

Do you need to get QB C.J. Beathard in at all in these final two games or just let QB Nick Mullens go because he’s been so efficient?

“Nick deserves to be in. Nick’s played very well and he’s gotten better as he’s gone. I thought yesterday was probably Nick’s best game, especially the way he finished it in that fourth quarter. We didn’t complete a lot of balls, but just him getting rid of the ball on some really tough protection situations and being able to get that one to Dante at the end which was very tough to get off. [Seattle Seahawks LB Barkevious] Mingo had us beat on the right side and to get us off, to me, they don’t call PI a lot if you don’t throw it to him. One we missed a WILL free safety pickup that he threw to Bourne on third down that was just unbelievable. It ended up slipping out of Bourne’s hands, but it was a hell of a play. He’s done too good of a job. We’d love to get C.J. more playing time, but Nick’s earned it and I’m not taking him out.”

CB Richard Sherman spent some of his press conference trying to drive up Nick’s trade value. Are you open to, if the opportunity presents itself, trading one of your backups?

“I mean, you’re open to anything possible that improves your team. That’s not just backups. Anything you have an obligation to do whatever you think is right to give your organization the best chance to win. I think backups are extremely valuable, not just at the quarterback position, but everywhere. Usually you have to win with backups and you hope to stay healthy all of the time, but very rarely does that happen. Backups can be the difference in a season.”

Have you gotten any closer to when QB Jimmy Garoppolo would be able to go through a full practice or anything like that? Has that been discussed?

“No, I don’t keep up with that. My understanding is that he’s got a real good chance to be doing stuff in OTAs, especially at the quarterback position where you don’t have to be out there running routes and things like that. Hopefully we can get him in some seven on seven deals and things like that and he can be throwing the ball. So, we’ll see if that works out that way.”

June OTAs?

“Yeah, I think. End of May or June. You’re way ahead of me right now.”

That suggests that Nick and C.J. will be the main QBs throughout at least a good chunk of the spring. Are you looking forward to having that dynamic? Two young guys, perhaps, competing with each other, working with the first-team group?

“What’s fun is when you have a bunch of guys who have played in your system and you know what they are and you know that they can be successful. Then you’re not always trying to train guys. You’re always trying to get guys better and teach them every single day, but it’s neat when you have some choices that you believe you can win with. I think we’ve got three guys in our building that give us a chance to win. So, going into a camp with them or however it plays out, you just give them reps and you let them go and usually it takes care of itself.”

A quick question on K Robbie Gould. Since you’ve become a play caller, has there been another kicker you’ve had that you’ve had that level of confidence in? Kind of like, “We’re at the 30, we at least have three points?”

“With [Atlanta Falcons K] Matt Bryant I had it. Matt Bryant did very well. Besides that, I’ve always thought we had to get to the 20 before I wanted to not go for it. Robbie’s changed that.”

Rugged experiences?

“Yeah, some scars.”

Is it a no brainer to kick on third down?

“Yeah, that’s what you want. I was actually contemplating it every single down. It was really kind of messing with my mind the whole time there because Robbie is very efficient on kicking those field goals. But, once you get to that 30, I know he can make it. But, it’s, ‘What if you kick it here and it hits the upright. Let’s just get it closer.’ We had fumbled in the game and things like that, especially Jeff coming off of that. With Breida going out, I wanted to get it closer, but what if we end up turning this over when we have it? There is that whole dilemma. Once you got to third down, I forget where we were at, but I think it was inside the 25, I think it was right at the 20. I felt good about it and you’d much rather do it on third down than fourth down just in case something bad happens. You can always get rid of the ball and do it again.”

Are you talking to special teams coordinator Richard Hightower or Robbie at all during the game, just with the weather and the wind and rain about how does this change, what the target is?

“Always, yep. I’m probably not a fun guy to talk to at that time, but they always give me yard line. They’re pretty dead on their yard line and then if it ever changes with wind, they tell me whether it’s 40, 35, 34. It always changes and it always gets there. When they give me a number like 36, I’m always like, ‘Alright, what does that mean?’ If we’re on the 36 and a half, does that mean I have to go for it? Then Robbie is like, ‘No, I can do it from 36 and a half,’ and it’s like, ‘Alright, what about 37? 38?’ So, there’s a time, and Robbie’s awesome because he’s a pro about it. You challenge guys and a lot of guys always say, ‘Yeah, I can do it,’ but Robbie, I feel pretty good that he’ll say, ‘No, it’s too windy, I can’t do it from there, you’ve got to go for it.’”

Was 36 the number yesterday?

“It was, mine was 36. Robbie felt good all the way behind there, just so defenses know we can kick a field goal at any time.”

Does he have a say in the coin toss as far as which side?

“Yeah, I don’t care about the sides. If he has a preference on the wind and stuff and he can predict how the wind is going to be in the fourth quarter, I’ll go with that every time. It was weird yesterday, I actually thought I was going to have to make one of the first decisions on how this wind was going to play out. But, we’re in the stadium and we can’t tell which way it’s going. It seemed like it was swirling all around, so I just let Robbie decide and I think he did.”

I know it’s early but DeForest, you’ll be able to negotiate with him for the first time this offseason. Is that something you guys are going to be eager to do?

“We’ll look into all of that stuff. I haven’t thought about any of that now, but I know DeFo is someone we want to be a Niner for a long time. So, however the best way is to get that done.”

You talked a little bit about Solomon Thomas and how he doesn’t necessarily get enough credit. Is DL Arik Armstead kind of another one of those guys who doesn’t as well?

“I don’t know. I don’t read everything so I don’t know how much credit he’s getting and stuff like that. But, he deserves credit. I think Arik has done very well his year. He’s gotten better throughout the year. Like I said last week, he plays the run very well and I think he’s getting better in the pass game. He gets to the quarterback. So, I think both of those guys have improved throughout the year and hopefully we can keep them going in that direction.”

Regarding Sherman, certainly 49er fans had a certain perception of him, whatever it was. He does seem to be a better teammate than I think a lot of people might have guessed. He’s very into talking up half of the roster. Did he surprise you in that way? Had you heard stuff about him that went against whatever some people’s perception is of him?

“Yeah, I think Sherm comes off one way on TV and stuff, one, because he’s passionate and does stuff and two, because he enjoys parts of that. But, you try to never make a decision off someone based on perception. You try to talk to people who know the person and you get their opinions of him. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Sherm from coaches I respect and that have been with him. Then you always try to spend some time with the guy and decide for yourself. Since the first time we’ve been with Sherm, going to dinner with him that first night, he’s been extremely consistent, a guy you can talk to, a guy who can use reasoning, who can talk and understand what you’re saying. Usually guys like that who work hard and just want to win are some of the easier guys to deal with.”

Did you know he could tackle so well in the run game?

“Yes, he’s done it to us a number of times. Especially on that edge, I’ve seen him do it. When he wants to go, he’s heavier than people realize and he can put his hands on you pretty good at the line of scrimmage in coverage. When he lowers his pads, he can deliver a blow.”