The San Francisco 49ers are 4-0 to start the 2019 campaign. After a season where the defense struggled to force turnovers, San Francisco has managed 10 through five weeks of the season (seven interceptions and three fumble recoveries). A big factor in the improvement has been the team's stout cornerback play which hasn't gone unnoticed. Both Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon have been ranked in Pro Football Focus’ Top 25 cornerbacks through Week 5.
Back in OTAs, Sherman said he felt like his vintage self, and he's proved it so far. Through the first five weeks of the season, the nine-year veteran has registered 15 tackles, six passes defensed and two interceptions (one pick-six). Sherman is currently ranked as the 13th-best corner after the start he's had.
According to Ben Linsley of PFF:
"Speaking of cornerbacks limiting deep success, Sherman has yet to allow a pass into his coverage on passes 20 or more yards downfield. On those four targets in that range, opposing quarterbacks have combined to go 0-for-4 with one interception. He's improved across the board on a 2018 season in which he allowed a passer rating of 100.5 on throws into his coverage. His 2019 figure of 50.6 is much more in line with his career passer rating allowed of 54.5."
Witherspoon was having a breakout start to his season before being sidelined with a foot injury. Prior to leaving the Week 3 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers early, Witherspoon posted nine total tackles, five passes defensed and one pick-six, the first of his career. Witherspoon is currently ranked as the eight-best corner through the season's first five weeks, according to PFF.
"In my opinion, first it's his mindset - he's been very business-like," 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. "The big thing, to me, is the work that he put in in the weight room over the offseason. He's gotten bigger. He's gotten stronger. Where he is able to press guys at the line of scrimmage and actually keep them from getting off the line of scrimmage or at least being able to disrupt routes without disrupting himself. He's not having to lunge into people where he ends up in a trail position, he can stay on top so he can go look for the ball.
"For Ahkello, the mental makeup in terms of being smart enough to play the position, the foot quickness, all that stuff for us has always been there, 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."
"A sprained foot has sidelined Witherspoon since Week 3, which is a shame because he was putting together an impressive start to his 2019 campaign prior to the injury. Witherspoon had allowed just six of the 18 passes into his coverage to be completed. That is the best rate of any cornerback this season that has seen 15 or more targets. Any time you are seeing completion rates that low against a player, there is going to be a certain level of luck involved, but Witherspoon has played his part as well with several nice pass breakups."
The 49ers secondary are hoping to get Witherspoon back into the fold over the next couple of weeks.