There are three two key positions that every team needs if it wants to excel on defense: pass rushers and cornerbacks. After adding Nick Bosa and Dee Ford to DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, it looked like the 49ers probably had the former position sown up.
Cornerback was somewhat less certain. Richard Sherman was not back to his best last season, though he was more than solid. On the other side, Ahkello Witherspoon was inconsistent and clearly frustrated his coaches with his attitude. Despite that, he demonstrated the talent on several plays to suggest he could yet become a high calibre NFL cornerback. Nevertheless brought the oft-injured stud Jason Verrett in to compete for a starting berth; to push Witherspoon and Sherman.
If Sunday was evidence of anything, it was that Witherspoon heard the 49ers’ head honchos’ message. In a superb performance, Witherspoon allowed an NFL passer rating of just 4.9 per PFF. He was targeted seven times, gave up only two catches, broke up a further two passes, and recorded a pick-6.
His performance should provide legitimate hope that he can become a genuine number one corner in this league, and it will be the focus of today’s defensive film review.
Ahkello Witherspoon’s superb day
There is no doubt that Witherspoon has always shown talent. His movement skills were highly touted coming out of college whilst he possesses the size and length to compete with the number one receivers in the 2019 NFL. Inconsistency was his biggest knock, but he banished that against the Buccaneers.
When in a direct matchup with a receiver, Witherspoon completely shut the route down on five occasions, was in position on a further eleven and was only beaten handily on one occasion, per Niners Nation’s Kyle Posey. His pick-6 was undoubtedly the icing on the cake of his performance, but it was nowhere near the most impressive play of a superb afternoon’s work. Importantly, Witherspoon showcased improved footwork and overall executed his schematic demands far more consistently.
I will start with the pick-6. The 49ers defensive line pursued Winston far more than the design of the Bucs’ screen pass had in mind. Dre Greenlaw (who had an impressive day in coverage himself) reacts really quickly to the screen and dances past the tackle to cover the running back. Witherspoon doesn’t have much work to do, but he smartly recognises he has no threats to his deep third zone, so he works downhill again towards the planned screen. Had he not, he would not have been in a position to catch the pass.
Witherspoon’s first notable play on Sunday came on this play. The Buccaneers run a Shanahan staple yankee concept (post-deep crosser/dig) tagged with a Y-corner route off play action. It’s an obvious Cover 3 beater. The 49ers do an excellent job covering it, with Sherman & Tartt doubling the post and Alexander recovering well to cover the corner route. Witherspoon stays on top of Evans, leverage stepping as Evans swerved in his stem. As soon as Evans breaks, there are no wasted steps (a criticism of Witherspoon in the past), and he breaks downhill towards the receiver, squeezing him and breaking up the pass. When Witherspoon is playing well, he frequently looks really impressive covering deep digs/crossers.
Though he does give up a catch here, this is still superb coverage, forcing a phenomenal throw from Winston. This probably wouldn't have been completed had Winston not been throwing to the boundary side. Witherspoon is patient with his feet, not wanting to work back too deep understanding the down and distance. Once again, there are no wasted steps from Witherspoon as he drives forwards when the receiver breaks. He undercuts the route, leaping with the correct (left) hand to try to disrupt the pass. New DB coach Joe Woods certainly appears to have worked on Witherspoon’s footwork.
A rep that shows Witherspoon’s development and increased confidence. Patient at the LOS, forcing Evans to have to move laterally. He then turns, stays on top and shepherds Evans towards the sideline. Unlike previous years, he gets his head round really early (after about 12 yards), massively mitigating the risk of a pass interference call. He trusts that he can ‘feel’ Evans behind him. Sees the pass all the way and bats it down. Dominated Evans on this play.
The only poor play from Witherspoon all game. He has bad eyes here, looking into the backfield when it appears Winston is going to be sacked instead of squeezing Evans again. He’s also not helped by his underneath defenders ending up in no man’s land. This allows Winston to fire the ball to Evans instead of having to float it over the underneath defenders.
More brilliant coverage from Witherspoon. The 49ers are in Cover 3 but with the safety rotating inside on the weak-side rather than outside (a RITA call here). Clearly, the 49ers expected such a pattern based on how all the defenders played it, but Witherspoon once again does an excellent job on the deep in route.
For my money, this was Witherspoon’s best play, as he goes beyond the design of the defensive play to break this pass up. The 49ers’ coaches talk about “going beyond coaching”; this is one such moment.
This looks like Cover 3, with safety Tarvarius Moore playing a very lazy hook on the weak side. As a result, Witherspoon is reading the receivers 2 to 1 on this play, and you can see him reading the triangle of the quarterback and the number 2 receiver. With number two going vertical, Arians clearly calculated with this design that Witherspoon would retreat and the number one receiver would be wide open on the quick out. He would have been, but Witherspoon read this absolutely magnificently. Showing great eyes to read the triangle, he flips his hips quickly as Winston winds up to throw, driving for the ball before making a leaping pass break up. This was the cherry on the icing, on the top of the cake of Witherspoon’s supreme start to 2019.
- The 49ers’ run defense found itself stretched at times, particularly on the defensive interior. This was because their Wide 9 alignments allowed the Bucs to regularly double team both defensive tackles. They would often run inside zone to the weak side. This left Arik Armstead unblocked at one end because they didn't respect his speed in back-side pursuit and involved a tight-end keeping Dee Ford outside. This allowed all five offensive linemen to work inside, with four of them taking the two defensive tackles before working to the linebackers. On other occasions, they would block all four defensive linemen but still found ways to double team both tackles in heavier packages. This resulted in some big inside runs.
- The 49ers did attempt to counter this a few different ways, which was successful for the most part. This bodes well for their adaptability moving forward. They would slant or stunt both or one tackle on occasion, swapping gaps with a linebacker behind to disrupt and confuse blocking assignments. On other occasions, they blitzed into gaps to force the Bucs’ offensive linemen off their planned double teams. Alternatively, one defensive end would play as a 6 or 5 technique, forcing the tackle to focus that way rather than on the defensive tackle (always the 3-tech so mostly Buckner) inside.
The DTs slant to their left. Buckner moves from the front-side B-gap to the front-side A-gap; Jones moves from the back-side A gap to the back-side B gap. The linebackers move into the right gaps behind & Nzeocha stuffs the run in the vacated front-side B gap.
- On the subject of Buckner, he had a quiet game. This was because the Buccaneers specifically targeted him and tried to tire him out in the heat. Overall, Buckner was double-teamed on 46.2% of his reps, including 64.7% of his reps in the run game. Once Nick Bosa is all the way back, expect those numbers to reduce, particularly in the running game. Teams just won’t be able to block Bosa with a tight end or leave him unblocked entirely.
- Bosa’s debut was superb. His polish as a pass rusher was clear to see as he routinely beat his opposite man, both inside and outside. His ability to control the offensive linemen or tight end’s chest and hands was extremely impressive in both run defense and as a rusher. Per PFF, he had two sacks (he was credited for a sack on the play Arik Armstead also sacked Winston), two hits and two hurries. This was good for six total pressures. That is 15.38% of Cassius Marsh’s total pressures last season (the best amongst 49ers EDGE players) in just 7.30% of the snaps.
- The linebackers did well in coverage but did get swarmed a little in the run game. They will need to be more decisive in the coming weeks attacking their gaps when they recognise run. Kwon Alexander’s big (legal) hit came on such a decisive play.
- The safeties also did well. We saw their versatility, with both splitting times between the box, split field coverages and deep centre field. Tarvarius Moore was aggressive coming downhill and generally looked good in coverage. He did bust a couple of coverages, both of which could have led to TDs. Fortunately, the DL recorded sacks. Nevertheless, he also saved a TD on a busted coverage in the red zone with a superb read and jump on the ball. A promising debut at safety.
Didn't show up on TV but Nick Bosa's first NFL sack was a really key play. 49ers in their Reno check. Witherspoon has a palms read, so correctly comes off 2 when he goes under & outside 1, passing Evans off to Moore. TM's eyes in the backfield tho, busts it. Ford & Bosa save it pic.twitter.com/q2n1PFjMVv— Scott Geelan (@Scott_Geelan) September 10, 2019
- Moore’s partner Jaquiski Tartt also had an excellent game. His understanding of both teams’ approaches shone through, notably when he called out a run play before it happened that led to a quick stop for the 49ers. He also had a great day in coverage, shutting down his opposite man four times, being in position a further five and only allowing a catch when his teammate picked him. On one play, he ran downfield stride for stride with a receiver who ran a 4.42 at the Combine. Recording a TFL and two pressures further demonstrated the safety’s value to this defense.
Tartt playing the weak hook has the responsibility of covering the number 3 if he goes vertical. This is a designed shot play for Godwin, but Tartt turns around and runs with him into the EZ. Would have taken a spectacularly thrown ball to beat him.