SANTA CLARA — Less than 24 hours after having to be carried into the San Francisco 49ers locker room, second-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon has been placed on injury reserve, ending his season.
According to head coach Kyle Shanahan, an MRI performed earlier on Monday morning revealed a sprained posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) which forced Witherspoon to exit at the 10:16 mark of the first quarter of San Francisco’s 26-23 win over the Seattle Seahawks.
“Wish he could’ve finished these last two games,” Shanahan said on Monday afternoon. “ Hopefully, he’ll come back here ready to go next year and take off the way he finished.”
For Witherspoon, the first 11 games of his sophomore season did not get off to a very successful start. After being awarded the starting job at right corner, opposite from former Seahawk all-pro Richard Sherman, he was tested early and often.
In his nine starts over that span, Witherspoon recorded only three pass deflections, 36 tackles and zero interceptions. His lack of production earned him a 44.9 rating on Pro Football Focus, well below the league’s average of 60.1.
In his last two games in Weeks 13 and 14 against the Seahawks and Denver Broncos, however, Witherspoon looked to have turned a corner. His play was even recognized by Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s game.
“I thought he got a lot better in his coverage. Just more consistent. Playing a little more physical in his coverage, too,” Shanahan said. “I know he had some PI calls over the last month, ones that I wouldn’t want him to play differently.
“I thought he did a real good job on all those. I liked how he got more aggressive throughout the year.”
Unfortunately for Witherspoon, just as he began to get a grip on his play, an awkward landing on his right leg would wind up forcing him to leave only four minutes into the first quarter on Sunday.
In his place, the 49ers would send out rookie defensive back Tarvarius Moore, who had only played in five games this season.
While Moore struggled on his first play of the day, giving up a five-yard touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to Doug Baldwin in the right corner of the end zone, he was able to gain his footing and help the 49ers defense hold strong against a surging Seahawks offense late in the fourth quarter.
“I feel like [my coaches] were confident to send me in and I just had to go out there and do what I do every day,” Moore told the Examiner after the game on Sunday. “In this league, you never know when it’s going to be your opportunity.”
Moore’s play would turn out to be pivotal in the late stages of the fourth quarter on Sunday as Seattle had the ball, tied at 23, with under a minute to play.
In back-to-back plays, Moore would sniff out a designed screen pass for Seahawks running back Chris Carson and deflect a pass intended for wide receiver David Moore that would have put Seattle in position to take a game-winning field goal.
“I thought he did better in the fourth quarter. He plays physical. He doesn’t mind hitting,” Shanahan said of Moore’s play. “He carried it over to the defense and looks like he had fun out there. Looked like it wasn’t too big for him. He challenged guys at the line.”
According to Shanahan, Moore will be the top candidate to get the start at right corner, in place of Witherspoon, on Sunday against the Chicago Bears.