The SF 49ers secondary needed to be on its A-game against the Cardinals, and Ahkello Witherspoon was an excellent X-factor.
Few likely expected the SF 49ers to pull off a road win over the playoff-hopeful Arizona Cardinals in Week 16.
And fewer thought embattled cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon would play a key role for all the right reasons.
But Witherspoon did, helping shut down a vaunted Cardinals passing attack that entered the NFC West bout with the league’s 15th best passing offense and often matching up against arguably the best wide receiver in the game, DeAndre Hopkins, who was leading the entire league with 1,324 receiving yards entering Week 16.
While there were a number of defensive standouts who frustrated Hopkins and Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray, few impacted the game as positively as Witherspoon.
And perhaps no other player on San Francisco’s roster has overcome so much scrutiny en route to so much success in one game.
Witherspoon, who has been in and out of the lineup and often found himself a healthy scratch in the proverbial “doghouse” of head coach Kyle Shanahan, got the start over the injured veteran, Richard Sherman, who was out with a calf injury. Normally, that would indicate disaster against an Arizona pass-catching corps of players like Hopkins, Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald. Yet Witherspoon, along with fellow corners K’Waun Williams and Jason Verrett, made his presence felt.
The SF 49ers’ third-round pick from the 2017 NFL Draft enjoyed quite the stat sheet, recording seven tackles, one of those coming for a loss, defending a pass and also recording a clutch interception against Kirk in the end zone with the Cardinals driving late in the fourth quarter:
The Niners wouldn’t score points off the turnover. But Witherspoon’s play negated all the efforts from Arizona’s potential game-tying drive.
And it made up for a defensive holding call earlier in the game that eventually led to the Cardinals’ lone touchdown.
Fortunately, Witherspoon bounced back from that lone gaffe.
“He didn’t pout,” Shanahan told reporters after the game when asked about Witherspoon’s benching earlier this season. “He went to [special teams coach Richard Hightower] and [defensive coordinator Robert Saleh] and looked to improve. He really brought himself back when he was down… because of the way he handled himself when adversity struck, he earned that opportunity.”
While the entire body of work might be up and down, Witherspoon’s most recent efforts were certainly a major part of San Francisco’s win in Week 16.
Did Ahkello Witherspoon save his career with SF 49ers
Witherspoon is an unrestricted free agent in 2021, and his diminished role suggests he won’t be a re-sign priority at all for a team that has 39 other free agents of some form or another.
Speaking of free agents, though, the SF 49ers could lose a significant portion of their secondary to free agency this offseason. Sherman doesn’t seem likely to return. Verrett and Williams are also unrestricted free agents, while depth corner Emmanuel Moseley is a restricted free agent.
One might not think Witherspoon is a must-sign player for the Niners. But if he winds up being retained on a cheaper deal to at least round out the depth chart and maintain some sort of continuity, that could be a bonus.
If anything, Witherspoon certainly made a better case for himself in this regard after faring so well against one of the more potent passing offenses in the league this season.
And if he does move on from San Francisco, at least Witherspoon can look back on this game as one of his best in an SF 49ers uniform.