SANTA CLARA — Limping his way through the 49ers locker room Sunday afternoon in a protective boot, Ahkello Witherspoon assured the media that he’d be “just fine” after exiting San Francisco’s 24-20 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Witherspoon’s assessment was a bit off. On Monday, the 49ers announced that the third-year cornerback will be sidelined for at least a month with a sprained left foot. The loss now puts San Francisco’s secondary depth in question heading into the early bye week.
“It’s going to be some time with him,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “We are still waiting on another opinion from a foot specialist. It’s going to be some time.”
Up until being carted off the field in the third quarter after injuring the foot on a return, Witherspoon had been playing some of his best ball in a 49ers uniform.
In Week 1, the Colorado product allowed just three receptions on 14 passes thrown his way, also recording a pick-six to seal San Francisco’s first win of the season against Tampa Bay.
After a 2018 season marred with questions surrounding his focus and physical abilities, Witherspoon, 24, began to put those doubts to rest, helping the 49ers build a top-two defense in yards allowed per game through three weeks (283.3).
“For Ahkello, it’s the mental makeup in terms of being smart enough to play the position.” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said heading into Sunday. “But now the mindset of making this business-like every single day, never getting comfortable and his physical makeup of his physical strength has been the biggest differences for me.”
The question now becomes who will start at cornerback in place of Witherspoon?
San Francisco thought they had the answer with Jason Verrett, the former Los Angeles Charger who the 49ers signed to a one-year, $3.6 million contract in March.
Verrett, coming off of a torn Achilles tendon suffered in 2018, didn’t last very long on Sunday. After being called for defensive pass interference 40 yards down field, Verrett then gave up a 39-yard touchdown to Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson.
Verrett was pulled on the next defensive series as second-year defensive back Emmanuel Moseley was inserted, finishing the game for San Francisco.
“[Moseley] would be the lead guy right now [to start] with how he finished that game and came in and what he’s done for us this whole year,” Shanahan said. “But, we’ll give all the other guys a chance too with these practices we’ll have before Cleveland.”
Also in the running for the starting right cornerback job will be D.J. Reed and Jimmie Ward, who is expected to be active against the Browns after missing the first three weeks of the season with a broken finger.
Shanahan also aluded to the fact that San Francisco is exploring trade options, which may include Jaguars corner Jalen Ramsey, who reportedly requested a trade to get out of Jacksonville last week.
“We always look at the trade market and we’ll continue to,” Shanahan said. “But it’s got to make sense for us.”
According to Albert Breer of SI.com, the Jaguars want a pair of first-round picks in return for their All-Pro corner, which may be too steep a price for the 49ers.
Nonetheless, without Witherspoon, San Francisco will have to make a decision as to who will suit up for them at right corner on Monday night against Cleveland, and beyond.
– 15-year veteran long snapper Jon Condo announced his retirement from the NFL on Monday.
Condo was signed by San Francisco on Sept. 17 after the team released Colin Holba, who replaced Kyle Nelson. Nelson is currently serving the remainder of a 10-game suspension after violating the league’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Condo played in just one game for San Francisco.
“He just said his heart wasn’t in it,” Shanahan said. “Definitely surprised us. He did a real good job for us in the game, had a good week of practice, but I do appreciate him coming and telling us what was in his head.”
– Shanahan was pleased with the work of Justin Skule, who started at left tackle in place of the injured Joe Staley on Sunday.
“The fact that I didn’t talk about him much throughout the game, I think he did very well,” Shanahan said after the game.
After reviewing game tape, Shanahan says he came away with the same conclusion of Skule’s performance — minus the trio of penalties the rookie committed.
Skule was called for a pair of holds as well as a blind-side block that stalled two San Francisco’s drives.
“All three of them, ones that can’t happen,” Shanahan said. “But, for his first game, it wasn’t too big for him at all. He handled the game well. The only time I really said his name was when he got the penalties and he definitely gave us a good chance to win.”
With Staley out for at least seven more weeks, the 49ers are confident that Skule is competent enough to produce as a starter — for now.