TAMPA, Fla. – For more than nine months, the 49ers’ defensive backs have been reminded of that number.
That’s the number of interceptions – the worst in NFL history – the 49ers registered during the entire 2018 regular season. And that's the number everyone has been talking about since the end of last season.
Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman was first to mention it to the media, unprompted and with a huge smile, in the 49ers’ locker room after he, Ahkello Witherspoon and Mark Nzeocha came up with three interceptions against Jameis Winston in the 49ers’ 31-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
“This defense, this scheme, the cover-3 scheme isn’t super-complicated,” Sherman said. “But it’s about discipline. It’s about consistency. It’s about being where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there, and having a pass rush. That’s when you get tips and overthrows. Got to get those. And when you have guys pushing, you see tipped balls all over the place.
“These aren’t crazy plays ... It’s just guys being where they’re supposed to be because you understand how you’re getting attacked every time.”
The 49ers generated only seven takeaways all of 2018, and that's another all-time worst mark in NFL history. Linebacker Fred Warner forced a fumble that Ronald Blair recovered to provide a fourth takeaway on Sunday against the Bucs.
Sherman played 14 games for the 49ers last season, and for the first time in his eight-year career, he did not record an interception. That all changed early in the third quarter in the season opener when Winston threw wide. Sherman made the catch and returned it 31 yards to the house, giving the 49ers a 20-7 lead early in the third quarter.
In the closing minutes, Witherspoon clinched the victory with a 25-yard interception return for a touchdown. It marked the first time since Nov. 25, 2012, against the New Orleans Saints that the 49ers returned two interceptions for touchdowns in the same game. Ahmad Brooks and Donte Whitner returned interceptions for scores in that game.
The 49ers, who did not win a road game last season, had lost their previous 12 games in the Eastern time zone, dating back to the 2014 season.
“That was our focus, coming into Week 1 and getting a win on the road,” Witherspoon said. “Get that ball rolling toward success, and it feels good to come out and do it with such a defensive presence.”
Witherspoon and Sherman did an outstanding job in containing Bucs wide receiver Mike Evans, who had 1,524 yards receiving last season. Evans was held to just two receptions for 28 yards. Witherspoon broke up a well-thrown deep pass to Evans along the left sideline when he was tested.
“He’s good at the line,” Witherspoon said. “That was my biggest focus, was not getting too busy with him at the line, just because I know I can run with him vertically. When you let him get into his route and just kick and run, you’re going to have a good opportunity and I can use my length to defend some of those jump balls, those 50-50 balls.”
Witherspoon was challenged for a starting job at the beginning of training camp with the addition of veteran Jason Verrett. But Verrett sustained an ankle injury on Aug. 7, and returned to practice last week. Witherspoon won the trust of the coaching staff, and the 49ers deactivated Verrett for Sunday’s game.
Sherman said he has seen Witherspoon grow and mature from a year ago when one bad play seemed to lead to another.
“Ahkello is the same player,” Sherman said. “Don’t get me wrong. He was a good player last year. It’s just about mentality. His approach has changed. He was a talented and credible player last year. He had a few bad plays and a few mistakes here and there, and he was a victim of some coverage busts, where the touchdown or the play wasn’t necessarily his fault.
“But this year he’s learned how to overcome those things mentally. He’s learned to fight through and not let it emotionally hijack him.”
CB Richard Sherman on his interception return for a TD, the team’s performance and Ahkello Witherspoon, who added a pick-six of his own in the #49ers 31-17 victory over #Buccaneers. pic.twitter.com/l5ooJUsvaJ— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoNBCS) September 9, 2019
Witherspoon was credited with three pass breakups on the day. It was a strong start to his third NFL season after he lost his starting job early last season. Witherspoon ended up appearing in 14 games with 12 starts in 2018.
“He’s going to be a great player in this league for a long time,” Sherman said, “and I’m so proud of him today and the way he battled and the way he showed up.”
The secondary already felt the benefits of an improved pass rush Sunday. Dee Ford, Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead recorded a sack apiece. Although the pressure on Winston was not constant, they did force him into some bad throws, including on Witherspoon’s game-clinching play.
Ford got pressure off the left side, while Bosa administered heat from the right. Armstead pushed the pocket up the middle, and linebacker Dre Greenlaw sniffed out the screen pass to cover the back out of the backfield.
“That pressure all game, I think it all comes to a head right there in that moment,” Witherspoon said. “He sailed it, and I just took it home.”