SANTA CLARA -- Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who was benched before the final drive of the 49ers’ Week 17 win against the Seattle Seahawks, will be back in the starting lineup Saturday in the playoffs.
Witherspoon told reporters on Wednesday that he will start when the 49ers open the playoffs against the Minnesota Vikings at Levi’s Stadium.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said Witherspoon did not fare as poorly as it might have looked to anyone who did not know the coverages and Witherspoon’s assignments on any given play.
“Ahkello, actually, when you go back and look at that tape, played a pretty good football game,” Saleh said. “There were a couple of situations where he got caught in a bad situation. Either way, his ability to put those to bed and compete his tail off will always define whether or not he can finish and play games at his best.
“But to say he played a poor game against Seattle, I'll be honest with all of you, it would be inaccurate.”
Witherspoon surrendered six catches (on eight targets) for 71 yards and two touchdowns, according to Pro Football Focus. Russell Wilson’s scoring pass to DK Metcalf against Witherspoon cut the 49ers’ lead to 26-21 with 3:36 remaining.
When Saleh was asked why Witherspoon was benched before the final drive of the game, he declined to answer.
“I'll keep that one in-house, if you don't mind,” Saleh said. “I'm sorry about that one. Yeah, I'll just leave that one alone.”
Emmanuel Moseley entered the game on the final drive and gave up two completions for 34 yards on five pass attempts. Moseley made one of the best defensive plays of the game with a diving pass-breakup to prevent a potential 12-yard touchdown pass to Metcalf with 51 seconds remaining in the game.
It is likely the 49ers will not hesitate to make a change on Saturday, if Witherspoon gets off to a slow start.
“I like to go out there and compete and let my athleticism give myself the best chance to win, and when I limit myself I feel like that’s a poor game,” Witherspoon said.
The 49ers' corners face a stiff challenge on Saturday against Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen. Diggs was Minnesota’s leading receiver during the regular season with 63 catches for 1,130 yards and six touchdowns. Thielen, slowed by a hamstring injury during the season, came on strong in the wild-card round to catch seven passes for 129 yards in the overtime victory against the New Orleans Saints.
“What makes them unique is how different they are,” Witherspoon said. “You have to come in with that approach and understanding who each one is, and it should be an exciting matchup.”