49ers' opponents think they've found weak link in defense

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SANTA CLARA — Ahkello Witherspoon has a bull’s-eye on his back.

Opposing teams, local media and even retired 49ers players have targeted Witherspoon, San Francisco’s second-year cornerback, as the weak link, the mark, the problem for the defense.

Robert Saleh, the 49ers defensive coordinator, addressed the critics and defended Witherspoon Wednesday in the team’s auditorium. “Ahkello is getting better,” Saleh insisted. “The thing that gets frustrating sometimes is when you’re losing football games, it’s very hard for people to see what’s right. They all want to point out what’s wrong. They’re trying to figure out why we’re losing. So, we get lost in the world of what’s wrong rather than trying to find out what’s right.”

Former 49ers strong safety Donte Whitner lives in the world of what’s wrong with Witherspoon.

Whitner played strong safety for the 49ers from 2011 to 2013, and made the Pro Bowl in 2012 and 2014. He retired from the NFL in 2017 and currently works as an analyst for NBC Sports Bay Area.

On Sunday, Whitner posted video clips on Instagram of Witherspoon’s season –—both the good and the bad. Mostly the bad.

“Things last year were covered up for (Witherspoon),” Whitner said during one of his Instagram videos. “When you win at the end of the season, you can give up a couple plays people will overlook. But when you’re losing, they’re going to nitpick everything.”

Whitner then demonstrated how to nitpick everything with a struggling cornerback like Witherspoon. Whitner showed the coaches’ tape, made neon-blue marks with a telestrator and even used slow motion to highlight all of Witherspoon’s faults.

“The tackling is an issue,” Whitner said of Witherspoon. “He is shooting low and just rolling, not wrapping. No contact courage. Give me some courage out there.”

Saleh couldn’t disagree. “Ahkello has got to step up and play great in the run game, from a tackling standpoint,” Saleh said. “He’s got to reconnect himself to what he was doing last year in that regard.”

Witherspoon declined to comment for this article.

The 49ers drafted Witherspoon in the third round in 2017. They had big hopes for him. But in addition to missing tackles, he has struggled in coverage. Has intercepted zero passes and given up six touchdown catches in eight starts this season.

“He has bad eyes,” Whitner said of Witherspoon on Instagram. “He’s undisciplined and doesn’t want to watch his guy. It’s all fundamentals, things that started in the preseason that didn’t get corrected.”

Opposing teams have noticed. When they need to make a big play against the 49ers, they usually target Witherspoon.

Last week against the New York Giants, Witherspoon gave up a 20-yard touchdown catch to wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. This was in the third quarter when the Giants were desperate and trailing by 10 points. Witherspoon put up no fight during that play. He ran slowly and watched as Beckham made an easy catch in the end zone.

“(Witherspoon) should be a lot closer and make it a lot tighter throw,” Saleh admitted. “We always talk about even though you have (safety) help, never count on help. Do your job the best you can to keep things tight.”

Witherspoon counted on help from free safety Jimmie Ward, but Ward never arrived. Ward was out of position. After the play, Witherspoon threw up his hands and stared at Ward, letting everyone know Ward was at fault. Placing the blame all on him even though Witherspoon messed up, too.

Major no-no.

“You never want to show up your teammates,” Saleh explained. “You never want to show up the organization. Mistakes happen. People make mistakes. We get to the sideline, we fix it. We’re a group, we’re together, we’re a brotherhood. So, (Witherspoon) learned.”

But the Giants schooled him one more time.

It was second and 20 with 1:45 left in the fourth quarter. The 49ers were winning by three points, trying to close out the victory.

Naturally, the Giants matched up their best receiver, Beckham, one on one against Witherspoon. He had no safety help. He was all alone. And he failed. Committed a 16-yard pass-interference penalty against Beckham and gave the Giants an automatic first down. They scored the game-winning touchdown four plays later.

Given how poorly Witherspoon has played this season and how ruthlessly opposing offenses have exploited him, would the 49ers consider a schematic change to help him? Could they cheat coverage toward Witherspoon, move safeties his direction and force quarterbacks to throw elsewhere?

“We think about it, obviously, for sure,” Saleh said. “That’s a good question. But I believe in Ahkello. I think he’s a really good (cornerback). He’s got the skill set. And yes, to answer your question, you could cheat coverage. But, at the same time, you’re just robbing Peter to pay Paul. Eventually, it comes down to one-on-one (matchups).”

Meaning Witherspoon is on his own. Saleh won’t protect him.

Good luck, Ahkello.

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