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Breaking down CB Ahkello Witherspoon’s rough day vs. Lions

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What really happened with the 49ers’ No. 2 corner on Sunday?

Detroit Lions v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

With corner Richard Sherman only seeing a handful of targets so far this season, that means all the attention is on the defensive back that lines up on the opposite side of the field. In the 49ers’ case, that man happens to be second-year defender Ahkello Witherspoon.

After a promising rookie campaign and start to his second season, Witherspoon had a minor setback last Sunday against the Detroit Lions. The former Colorado defender was targeted 13 times, gave up eight catches and two touchdowns, was penalized two times and eventually benched for the last eight plays of the game. Yikes, that’s an ugly list.

Per Pro Football Focus, that poor performance earned Witherspoon a 27.9 grade, which pales in comparison to his game against the Vikings, which earned him a 71.0 grade. When targeted by Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford, Witherspoon gave up a passer rating of 131.0 — the maximum is 158.3, in case you were wondering.

Here’s what 49ers’ head coach Kyle Shanahan had to say when he was asked about his young corner’s starting job.

“We’ll see how this week goes. I mean, he [Witherspoon] was in and out towards the end of the game. I don’t know exactly how he’s feeling yet. We’ll see on Wednesday, but we’ll see how practice goes this week for him.”

All the numbers in the box score point towards an ugly game, but let’s evaluate the film to see what actually happened on all 13 of Witherspoon’s targets.

Late in the first quarter, Witherspoon was playing off of his man, Lions’ wideout Marvin Jones Jr., who recognizes the defense and catches a WR screen. Witherspoon is slow to make the tackle on Jones Jr., allowing the Lions to gain 12 yards on the second down play. Not much Witherspoon could do here, except be quicker and prevent the yards after catch.

This next play was probably Witherspoon’s worst of the afternoon. Lions’ receiver Kenny Golladay motions into the formation, lining up as if he’s going to run block. Stafford fakes the hand off to running back LeGarrette Blount, Witherspoon falls for the fake and can’t recover on Golladay. The Lions’ receiver is streaking alone down the left sideline for an easy touchdown. Witherspoon needs to understand his responsibility to Golladay and can’t fall for the play fake.

Witherspoon does a much better job of guarding Golladay on this play, staying with the receiver step-for-step. On certain plays, great offense beats great defense and that’s exactly what happens here. Witherspoon can tip his hat to Stafford and Golladay and line up for the next play. The 49ers’ second-year corner does well to make the tackle immediately and only gives up nine yards on the play.

Next up, Witherspoon gets beaten deep by Jones Jr., but luckily for the 49ers’ defense, Stafford makes a terrible throw and it ends up being an incompletion. Witherspoon is going to have to press the receiver to help slow him down at the line of scrimmage. Allowing Jones Jr. a free release is just asking to get burned deep.

On this snap, it seems like Witherspoon is in zone coverage, as he’s not staying with Jones Jr. tightly. The Lions’ receiver finds the open spot in the zone between Witherspoon and 49ers’ safety Jaquiski Tartt, catching Stafford’s pass for an 18-yard gain.

With 10 seconds left in the half, the Lions are clearly looking for one shot at the end zone. Somehow, Witherspoon ends up chasing Jones Jr. in coverage, allowing for the Lions’ wideout to get open for a split second in the end zone. If Stafford had a more accurate throw, the Lions likely score six points at the end of the half, instead of three.

In the second half, Witherspoon’s targeted immediately on a 10-yard out route by Jones Jr., who’s able to make the catch and turn up field for a 19-yard gain. Tough cover for Witherspoon, as he’s just beaten by a perfect route.

On this third-down play, Witherspoon’s in perfect coverage, staying step-for-step with the Lions’ pass catcher, not giving any leeway for a possible catch.

Early in the fourth quarter, Stafford tests Witherspoon deep again. The 49ers’ corner is in pristine coverage, staying a few steps ahead of Jones Jr. and in a good position to make a play on the ball.

Now on the goal line, Witherspoon is lined up against Jones Jr. and is beaten inside for a five-yard touchdown. If you watch the play closely, it looks likes the ex-Colorado corner is frustrated with 49ers’ safety Adrian Colbert afterwards. By the looks of it, Colbert was supposed to follow Jones Jr. into the back of the end zone, especially because Witherspoon hesitates a few steps into coverage. Seems like poor communication cost the 49ers six points on this play.

Late in the fourth quarter, with the Lions trailing by 10, this is the type of defense I expected from the 49ers’ defensive backs. Play off the receivers and do not allow them to get behind the defense. Witherspoon allows the easy 11-yard catch to Golladay, but I think 49ers’ defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was satisfied with this defense.

Here’s where the afternoon starts to slip away from the young defender. Witherspoon gets called for a ticky-tack holding penalty, which wasn’t being consistently called all afternoon. Golladay caught the pass, so the Lions’ declined the pass and took the eight-yard completion instead.

After being benched for one play, Witherspoon returns and has an awful pass interference penalty that cost the 49ers’ 11 yards and an automatic first down. It was clear that Witherspoon holds onto Jones Jr. after the ball was in the air, making it an easy call for the referees. That was the end of Witherspoon’s afternoon, as Ward was in the rest of the game.

Outside of the penalties and a few mental errors (on the two touchdowns), it seems like Witherspoon didn’t have as bad of an afternoon as originally advertised. It was surprising to hear Shanahan not stick up for his young cornerback in the media, given that possessing confidence is a huge part of the position for defensive backs.

With Kansas City next up on the schedule, Witherspoon will need to have short-term memory. He’s going to be given the challenge of chasing around receivers Tyreek Hill and Sammy Watkins.

I’m certainly not worried about the long-term potential of the 49ers’ second-year corner. It was a poor showing and now it’s on to Kansas City.