The San Francisco 49ers managed to survive the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, overcoming five turnovers to enter into the bye week undefeated. Overall, It’s been an impressive start for the 49ers, beginning the season 3-0 for the first time since 1998. The team now has a week off before facing off against the Cleveland Browns in Week 5 on Monday night at Levi’s Stadium.
We’re back with our weekly mailbag column. You’re welcome to drop questions in here for next week’s mailbag or tweet me @Rob_Lowder.
How big of an impact will losing CB Ahkello Witherspoon have on the 49ers defense? Adrian
Coach Kyle Shanahan said the 49ers would be without Witherspoon for “at least a month” after suffering a foot sprain in the second half of the team’s win over the Steelers. It’s a significant blow for a defense that was benefiting from the best they’ve seen from Witherspoon in his three-year career. How big on an impact will the loss have? Look no further than the following two plays after Witherspoon’s exit. Backup Jason Verrett gave up a costly pass interference penalty on one play and a deep touchdown on the next. The 49ers immediately swapped Verrett with former undrafted cornerback Emmanuel Moseley. In two games and change, Witherspoon totaled five pass breakups and an interception returned for a touchdown. It’s a significant void opposite Richard Sherman until someone steps up.
Do you think CB Jason Verrett will be an asset to the 49ers? Blake
As I touched on in the last question, Verrett failed his first test miserably on Sunday. On the other hand, it was his first in-game action since the start of the 2017 season. Verrett is an immensely talented cornerback that has been plagued by injuries. His return to a starting role will inevitably suffer some lumps as he finds his footing. It’s unclear if the 49ers have the patience to wait for Verrett to return to form, or if he’s even capable. His value within the defense will depend on his ability to win the starting role in competition with Moseley. Defensive back Jimmie Ward is another name to watch as the veteran makes his return from a broken finger suffered before the start of the season.
Does DB Jimmie Ward start at cornerback against the Cleveland Browns? John
In spite of a long list of injuries, the 49ers adore Ward, especially for his ability to play multiple spots. The team may need to take advantage of the former first-round pick’s versatility now that they’ve lost Witherspoon for the next three to four games. Ward’s career with the 49ers has included both cornerback spots, as well as free safety. He’s played each at a high level, when healthy. If his broken finger proves manageable, Ward may be in the mix to start opposite Sherman. It’s too early to know who’ll get the nod, though. We do know that the pressure will be on the secondary with wideouts Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry posing as the two biggest threats through the air for the Browns.
Why were so many quick to give up on WR Dante Pettis when it was clear that Kyle Shanahan hadn’t? Chris
Dante Pettis’ falling stock was more of a process than a knee-jerk reaction. It started during the offseason and training camp in which Pettis failed to generate any momentum as what many expected to be the 49ers’ clear-cut leading receiver. Not only did Pettis struggle, but he also regressed in many aspects. Shanahan’s frustration with his former second-round pick was clear, the 49ers coach continually making mention of the expectations for Pettis during meetings with the media. Over the first two weeks of the season, Pettis accounted for just one reception for seven yards. It was as if he no longer had a place in Shanahan’s offense. Pettis made his first start of the season on Sunday and caught four passes on five targets, including the game-winning touchdown. Shanahan said this week that Pettis was also dealing with a chest injury, in addition to an ailing groin throughout the start of the season. Hopefully, Pettis’ performance against the Steelers is just the beginning for the 49ers’ second-year wideout.
What’s Ahkello Witherspoon doing differently that’s led to his success so far? Gibster
From my point of view, Witherspoon demonstrated new-found confidence throughout all of training camp. It was obvious. He was the only defensive back with an interception in all three phases of competition during camp: one-on-ones, seven-on-sevens, and full team. Witherspoon had a new-found belief in himself in Year 3; something Sherman echoed during a press conference when asked about Witherspoon’s progress. The veteran also praised Witherspoon’s ability to quickly move on to the next play, no matter the result. The former third-round pick had shown flashes of ability through his first two years, but never consistently like he has to start 2019. Another factor to consider in the secondary’s success this season? The 49ers have a legitimate pass rush for the first time in a long time.
Is it reasonable to assume defensive lineman Arik Armstead stays and Solomon Thomas goes in 2020? Tray
I’ll say this, Tray: It’s not unreasonable to consider that scenario. Armstead has been among the 49ers’ top defensive players through three weeks. The former first-round defensive lineman has accounted for nine total tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, three quarterback hits and a forced fumble so far this season. Armstead’s in a contract year, the 49ers picking up his fifth-year option before the 2018 season. Thomas has managed to generate six total tackles, a tackle for loss, one sack and one quarterback hit in a mostly rotational role. With DeForest Buckner due for a contract extension, the 49ers may be forced to keep one or the other between Armstead and Thomas. Right now, Armstead is having a greater impact.
What impact do you see WR Jalen Hurd having Kyle Shanahan’s offense when he returns after the bye? Terrell
Rookie receiver Jalen Hurd is expected to make his return to practice after the team’s bye this weekend. The third-round pick suffered a back strain during the team’s preseason opener against the Dallas Cowboys and hasn’t participated since. Hurd is a former running back that showed off his physical style against the Cowboys en route to a three-catch, two-touchdown performance. With a 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame, Hurd showed a willingness to run through defenders, as well as the ability to high-point the ball in the endzone. Both are skills that the 49ers offense can benefit from. It’s unclear if Hurd will be active in the 49ers’ Monday Night matchup against the Cleveland Browns in Week 5. When he does take the field, I expect Hurd to operate mostly out of the slot, taking advantage of the inevitable mismatches created by his size and speed.
Why has Kyle Shanahan spent so much on the 49ers’ running backs? Yanni
Yanni’s question is a fair one, especially considering the success of Shanahan as generated with a trio of undrafted and inexpensive running backs in Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. The 49ers spent on Coleman this offseason (two years, $8.5 million) to avoid a repeat of last season in which practice squad running backs had to be promoted to the active roster to reinforce the group. Jerick McKinnon (four years, $30 million) was signed in 2018 to be a featured back in Shanahan’s offense. He was meant to be as big of a threat in the passing game as he was the run game, but an ACL tear and multiple setbacks have kept us from realizing Shanahan’s plan for McKinnon over the last two seasons. I don’t blame the 49ers head coach for spending what’s needed to create the offense he envisions. Unfortunately, it just hasn’t worked out.
When will RB Tevin Coleman return to the starting lineup? Serg
Coleman has missed the last two games with a high-ankle sprain suffered during the 49ers’ season-opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Shanahan said the team expects to have Coleman back after their bye, in time for the Week 5 Monday night matchup against the Cleveland Browns at Levi’s Stadium. In the meantime, the committee of Breida, Mostert and Wilson have held up just fine. It’ll be interesting to see how Coleman is integrated into a backfield that’s totaled 427 yards rushing and four touchdowns over the last two weeks.
Are the 49ers actively attempting to trade QB C.J. Beathard? There’s a lot of quarterback-needy teams out there. Hugo
That there are, Hugo. Despite many teams needing a signal-caller, I don’t believe the 49ers are actively shopping Beathard. They’ve made it clear to the league that Beathard and I assume backup Nick Mullens, are available for the right price - rumored to be a mid-round pick. Shanahan and general manager John Lynch are comfortable with both quarterbacks remaining on the roster behind Jimmy Garoppolo and have no need to bend on their asking price.