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Why 49ers started Moseley but switched to Witherspoon, and why it might happen again

© Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The whole Emmanuel Moseley-Ahkello Witherspoon situation is a product of a luxury the 49ers have at a very difficult cornerback position. Witherspoon had entered on the heels of a woeful sophomore campaign after a first season which inspired optimism. Moseley lost his only chance to start at corner in 2018 when he was injured on a special teams play in Week 9 against the Oakland Raiders.

It would be an understatement to say there was some uncertainty about the position when the year began. Now, there is still uncertainty, but it’s not about whether Witherspoon would be capable or whether Jason Verrett could replace him. It’s about whether Moseley, who wasn’t on anyone’s radar but the 49ers’, is too good to be benched.

What’s with Witherspoon’s timeline?

This has all arisen because of a nagging foot and quad injury Witherspoon has been dealing with.

He proved the point that players should never be trusted to give medical self-assessments when he was first injured in Week 3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, saying he expected to be back for the 49ers’ Monday night game against the Cleveland Browns in Week 5.

Instead, it was revealed to be a foot sprain, with a timeline of “at least a month,” followed by two setbacks. That combination saw Witherspoon out for Weeks 3 through 10, with an abbreviated return in Week 11, and his first extended playing time in Week 12.

Here is a breakdown of the Witherspoon timeline before Week 10: Head coach Kyle Shanahan said he’d have a chance to play in Week 8 against the Carolina Panthers, before revealing a setback that pushed the expectations back to Week 10 against the Seattle Seahawks. That timeline came with confidence of a return against Seattle, but another setback, in the form of a quad strain, pushed Witherspoon back again.

Then, Shanahan said that Witherspoon would need three good days of practice to start in Week 11 against the Arizona Cardinals, but the 49ers mainly held walkthroughs, and so Witherspoon, despite telling KNBR he was “good, ready to go,” was limited to just six defensive snaps and 14 on special teams against Arizona. Shanahan said on Monday that the 49ers’ limited practices didn’t give Witherspoon a chance to play.

“Ahkello wasn’t able to get a full week of practice in,” Shanahan said that Monday. “We weren’t going to throw Ahkello out there without covering a receiver full speed in about seven weeks, unless we could get three full days of practice in and we walked through about 88 percent of our reps that week. We walked through on Wednesday and Friday, Thursday with two full-speed practice. So, without getting the right amount of practice time in, it really wasn’t much of a decision.”

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh expressed confidence about Witherspoon ramping up last week prior to the 49ers’ game against the Green Bay Packers. He said the team had finally gotten back to a more normal practice routine, not affected by Monday or Thursday night scheduling.

“For Ahkello to have yesterday, today — got to go see the tape — tomorrow, to put in three great days of practice where it looks like he’s knocking off the rust, he looks like he’s got his feet under him and he looks like he did before he got injured,” Saleh said. “Those are the decisions that coach [Shanahan] is looking at and I’m trying to help him out with too.”

However, Saleh also pointed to the fact that Moseley had “proven that he’s a starter in this league, without question,” and that it wasn’t a sure thing for Witherspoon to start.

Was that the plan?

Moseley told KNBR last week that he found out the morning of the Cardinals game that he would start, and the same situation took place yet again last Sunday, with defensive backs coach Joe Woods letting him know on Sunday how the team planned to use him.

He played the entirety of the first quarter before Witherspoon started in the second quarter and remained in for the rest of the game aside from a calf cramp he suffered in the second half.

Shanahan said after the game that the plan was and still is to bring Witherspoon back incrementally, but said he believes he’s “about a week away” from returning as the out-and-out starter. An ankle injury to Emmanuel Moseley (45 defensive snaps, 56 percent, plus 10 special teams snaps) also played a factor in Witherspoon’s playing time (49 defensive snaps, 61 percent, none on special teams).

Still, as those snap counts show, Moseley was on the field for more plays than Witherspoon.

“We’re still just trying to ease Akhello back in. Akhello had a pretty good week of practice,” Shanahan said. “Still thought he was about a week away to get his starting job back. It’s a matter of time before he does get that. We planned on putting Akhello in a couple series each half. We knew when this day ended that he was going to get a couple series and then E-Man, I think his ankle is a little bit sore. On special teams, I forget what happened, he never had to come out, but he got a little bit banged up and when we gave Akhello his role that we planned to put him in, he was feeling better. We just kept him in.”

On Monday, Shanahan added that Moseley had suffered an ankle sprain the week prior, something which did not affect his participation in practice, according to the 49ers’ injury report. Despite suggesting that Week 13 against the Baltimore Ravens would be the week Witherspoon starts again, he pumped the breaks on that, saying a similar situation to last week could unfold. It would require perfect clarity on both players’ health, which likely won’t come until game time.

“Yeah, I see something similar,” Shanahan said. “Like I’ve said, Ahkello is our guy and once he gets fully back there, then I definitely think he’ll give us the best chance to win and he’ll be out there the most. Moseley’s also done a hell of a job in showing this league that he’s a real good player that plays at a starter level. So, that’s not a decision that you make until it’s without a doubt clear.”

Moseley confirmed to KNBR that the plan was to rotate with Witherspoon, but Witherspoon’s outstanding play was a factor in his extended run: “It just so happened, Spoon went in there and played phenomenal.”

The situation isn’t new to Moseley, who said he rotated with a pair of other corners, Shaq Wiggins and Justin Martin, at the University of Tennessee.


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