SANTA CLARA – The 49ers opted to give struggling cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon the start in the team’s playoff opener based on confidence he would return to his early season form.
But coach Kyle Shanahan said he let it be known to all parties that he would not hesitate to insert Emmanuel Moseley at the first sign of trouble.
That sign came just 9 minutes, 37 seconds in the 49ers' 27-10 divisional round victory against the Minnesota Vikings at Levi's Stadium.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in Ahkello,” Shanahan said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in E-Man, what he’s done when he’s come in. We gave Ahkello the start, but he knew. It was a very tough decision with the way that E-Man has been playing. He knew if he was struggling at all, we weren’t going to hesitate.”
The 49ers had a 7-0 lead in the first quarter when Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins began going after Witherspoon.
Witherspoon was called for an 8-yard pass interference penalty for grabbing Minnesota receiver Stefon Diggs. On a third-and-2 situation, Adam Thielen caught a 12-yard pass against Witherspoon.
Then on another third-and-2 play, Cousins went deep against Witherspoon, who appeared to have good coverage against Diggs down the left sideline. But Diggs made the adjustment on the ball thrown a bit to the inside. Witherspoon fell, Diggs made the catch and scored on a 41-yard touchdown.
“Just trying to look for the ball and he made an aggressive inside move to push off and go get it and I didn’t come back,” Witherspoon said. “It kind of died on me at the last second. And he made the inside move.”
When asked what he could have done differently, Witherspoon answered, “Put my foot in the ground like he did because it died at the last second. If I’d done the same thing, then I would’ve had an opportunity to make the play.”
Upon returning to the sideline, Witherspoo was informed Moseley would go into the game.
Was he disappointed with the decision to bench him?
“Not at all,” he said. “(I) didn’t make the play, and that’s the next move is to put in the next guy behind me who can play the game at a very high level.”
Witherspoon has allowed five touchdown receptions over the 49ers’ past three games. He said his confidence remains “out the roof.”
He explained: “I’ve been playing this game a long time. I put a lot of work into this game. Sometimes plays don’t go your way. And that’s life. I believe in God, too. I believe in my story. I believe in my final end place. And everything in the middle is a bump in the road.”
Moseley entered the game and certainly appeared to do enough to hold onto the starting job for next week when the 49ers return to action in the NFC Championship Game against the winner of the Seattle-Green Bay game on Sunday.
“I’m sure if we left him in, he would have had a chance to play himself out of it,” Shanahan said of Witherspoon. “He was aware of that before the game, and I loved how Moseley came in and played.”
Moseley started eight games this season while Witherspoon was out with a foot sprain. Moseley is an understated second-year player who entered the league last year as an undrafted rookie from Tennessee.
Moseley said he does not waste any time during the course of the week pondering whether he is starting or not. His mindset, he said, is just to stay ready to play at all times.
“I prepare the same,” he said. “And when my number is called, I just go out there.”
Moseley had five tackles, two passes broken up and did not back down from the challenge.
“I think I did all right,” he said. “Good plays. Bad plays. You learn from it and move on to the next game.”
Moseley replaced Witherspoon for the final drive of the 49ers’ 26-21 victory over Seattle in Week 17.
The 49ers held the Seahawks out of the end zone to win the NFC West and wrap up homefield advantage in the playoffs. Moseley made a big play on the final drive with a pass breakup against D.K. Metcalf in the end zone.
Moseley says he does not try to get too high or too low after successes and failures.
“Yeah, you feed off that, but I’m the same type of guy,” he said of the play he made in Seattle. “But if you get beat, you get beat and you move on to the next play.”