49ers, Kyle Shanahan surprised by Ahkello Witherspoon's sophomore slump


49ers, Kyle Shanahan surprised by Ahkello Witherspoon's sophomore slump

SANTA CLARA - After a very promising finish to his rookie season, 49ers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon seems to be in a sophomore slump. 

When Jimmie Ward left Monday’s game in the fourth quarter with a hamstring injury, the unexpected happened. Greg Mabin took his place at cornerback instead of Witherspoon. That was the plan all week, according to 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. 

“Jimmie practiced all week as our starter,” Shanahan said, “and we gave Mabin the backup role. So we knew going into the week that Ahkello was going to take the backseat. We had him get a little more scout-team reps and challenged him that way, and he was up to the challenge.”
Witherspoon’s snap count has gradually gone down over the past few weeks. This was apparent in Green Bay when he played no snaps on defense for the first time all season. He was limited to just nine special-teams plays, including the Packers’ game-winning field goal as time expired – a play on which he collided with Mabin and sustained a concussion.
The previous week, facing the Arizona Cardinals, Witherspoon played 29 defensive snaps and 11 on special teams. Facing the Chargers, he played 51 defensive snaps and two on special teams. 

Witherspoon’s regression has even Shanahan stumped. When asked about why he has taken a step back he couldn’t specify what has happened. 

“I’m not sure,” Shanahan said. “That’s something we’re working through with him. I do think he had his best week of practice last week, which I had a good talk with Ahkello about that before the game. It was the most encouraged we had been with him, last week through practice.

"I think Ahkello will be there, exactly where he was at last year. I expect him to get better from that. It hasn’t happened right away, but he’s going in the right direction now and I expect it to continue.”

The third-round pick from Colorado received high praise from veteran cornerback Richard Sherman during the offseason. The three-time All-Pro invited Witherspoon to his first “Cornerback Summit” down the road at Stanford. He spent two days learning from the likes of Darius Slay, Xavier Rhodes and Aqib Talib.

Sherman spoke about his belief in Witherspoon being among next great cornerbacks and how he knew he could handle his own with the assembled group. So what has changed? 

Is it because Sherman is now on the other side of the field, which makes opposing quarterbacks target the other side? Is it because Witherspoon’s confidence became too high after so much praise? Is it just the growing pains of being in the NFL? 

There isn’t a concrete answer yet, and there may not be one for a little while with Witherspoon unable to practice while in the NFL’s concussion protocol. The time table for his return to practice is unclear for now.

Mabin, who struggled in his limited role on Monday, is likely to be back on the field in an expanded role if Ward and Witherspoon can’t play on Sunday against the unbeaten Los Angeles Rams.

Trent Williams chose 49ers partly due to Nick Bosa, defensive line

Trent Williams chose 49ers partly due to Nick Bosa, defensive line

The 49ers' defensive line is the strength of the team. Not just for the chaos it creates, but also for the players it helps attract.

Last season, San Francisco allowed the fewest passing yards per game (169.2) and tied for the fifth-most sacks (48) in the NFL. Anyone who watched the 49ers' defensive line quickly realized it was one of the elite units in the league.

That included new 49ers offensive tackle Trent Williams, who sat out all of last season amid a dispute with Washington. That gave Williams plenty of time to study up on the top D-lines in the league, which ultimately influenced which teams he would be open to joining. After so much time away from game action, he knew he needed to go up against the best of the best.

"Oh man, I'm looking forward to it," Williams told NFL Media's Ian Rapoport on the "RapSheet and Friends" podcast. "When I looked for a team to go to, I looked at the opposite side of the ball to see who can I sharpen my iron on every day in practice because when I get out there on the field, I can't come up with a rust excuse. All that to me doesn't exist. So, I would rather be rusty in practice and be able to sharpen my iron then than to try to do it Monday night with all the cameras on me. 

" ... The defense is probably the best in the league. When you think about defensive lines that get after the quarterback, I think anybody with a pulse is going to throw the 49ers' front out there within the first, second or third groups to mention. So, that in itself excites me as a competitor, because I know I can get some of the best work done during the week. On Sundays, you're not going to see too many guys better than that group. Especially not any individuals that much better than [Nick] Bosa. I think they just don't have that many guys in the league that are better than him. So, I think for me, it's going to do everything for me to get me back to where I know I can be at."

[RELATED: Williams explains why 49ers were his ideal trade option]

When the 49ers' top offensive and defensive units go up against each other in practice, the expectation is that Williams and Bosa will be matched up head-to-head. That should make for quite the individual battle, and likely will only serve to make each player better.

Given that one has made the Pro Bowl seven times and the other is the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, that should be a terrifying thought for most other linemen in the league -- on both sides of the ball.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Eric Reid calls out 49ers' messaging on Black Lives Matter tweet

Eric Reid calls out 49ers' messaging on Black Lives Matter tweet

Eric Reid sent a strong statement to the 49ers tweeting "Black Lives Matter" and #BlackoutTuesday. The former 49ers safety responded with "I think you meant Blackball Tuesday" and called the organization hypocrites. 

Reid joined Colin Kaepernick in kneeling during the playing of the national anthem as a form of a peaceful protest against racial and social injustices, including police brutality, throughout the 2016 season when both players were part of the 49ers. Kaepernick has not been signed by an NFL team since opting out of his 49ers contract ahead of the 2017 offseason.

General manager John Lynch admitted in May 2017 the 49ers told Kaepernick they would have released him if he didn't opt out of his contract.

The quarterback alleged NFL owners conspired to keep him out of the league because of his protest, but Kaepernick ultimately settled a collusion lawsuit with the NFL last year. Reid clearly agrees with Kaepernick's beliefs regarding the league "blackballing" him due to his protests. 

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

CEO Jed York announced Saturday night the 49ers will be donating $1 million to local and national organizations committed to social change. York exlained why Monday, and even said, "We need to continue work that Colin drew attention to four years ago in 2016, and we need to continue to let our players, first and foremost, know they have a voice to be able to speak out" in an interview with the NFL Network's Jim Trotter.

After former 49ers receiver Torrey Smith praised York Saturday, Reid, who was teammates with Smith on the Carolina Panthers in 2018, expressed he had very different opinions and experiences with York than Smith did. 

[RELATED: Jackson insists 'fake' NFL should apologize to Kaepernick]

Reid continued to kneel in 2017 with the 49ers and the team opted not to re-sign him in free agency. The Carolina Panthers signed him to a one-year contract on Sept. 27, 2018, weeks into the 2018 season. 

The former 49ers first-round draft pick recorded 130 tackles and four sacks last season with the Panthers. He signed a three-year contract extension with Carolina in February 2019 and was cut one year later in March 2020.