Some Reassembly Required: How the 49ers Should Handle the Return of Witherspoon and Juszczyk
Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
You can never have too much of a good thing. For years the 49ers roster was a patchwork of poor draft picks, overpaid free agents, and aging talent. The fear was always injury, with bad players starting and worse players behind them, a season that could be derailed in the fraction of a second it takes to tear a ligament. So, it was fair for fans to worry when Ahkello Witherspoon and Kyle Juszczyk went down, Witherspoon spraining his foot against the Steelers and Juszczyk spraining his MCL Monday night versus Cleveland.
Prior to Witherspoon’s injury, he looked every bit the shutdown cornerback the 49ers hoped he would be after selecting him in the third round of their first draft in 2017. After getting a pick-six in Week 1, he continued his dominant play against the Bengals, taking another interception back nearly for a score. Through his first three games Witherspoon had allowed only six catches on 18 targets for an opposing quarterback rating of 59.5 with a career-best Pro Football Focus coverage score of 79.3.
After Witherspoon’s injury, undrafted second year corner Emmanuel Moseley was thrust into the starting position. Before his first start, on Monday Night Football against the Browns, Moseley had 45 career snaps; still, veteran Richard Sherman, who would play opposite Moseley, did his best to calm the nerves of the fan base. Against Odell Beckham, Jr. and Jarvis Landry, Moseley delivered, allowing only one catch on three targets, and making a touchdown-saving play in the end zone while blanketing OBJ. Moseley continued the strong play last Sunday against the Rams, allowing three catches on four targets for only 21 yards, again coming up with a big play downfield on third down to force a punt.
Kyle Shanahan said the team is targeting their October 27 game against the Panthers for Witherspoon’s return. Through two games Mosley has performed better than anyone outside the franchise expected, but assuming Witherspoon is healthy and able to play, he’s the clear choice at the cornerback spot opposite Sherman. Having a known commodity in Moseley is a big advantage for the coaching staff, as his play has added depth to a position group that was originally viewed as thin.
When Kyle Juszczyk hobbled off the field Monday night, concern came quickly for what his absence could mean to the offense. Originally signed as an “offensive weapon,” Juszczyk’s ability as a blocker, ball carrier, and receiver were invaluable to Shanahan’s offense. Would Shanahan scheme his way around Juszczyk’s injury, or call on his stable of tight ends to fill the void? The simple answer is a bit of both. Shanahan had Ross Dwelley in at the fullback position for 13 snaps on Sunday. The 49ers went into the game Sunday leading the league in 21 (two running backs, one tight end) and 22 personnel (two running backs, two tight ends), but they left the Coliseum having run zero plays out of either personnel grouping. Shanahan was able to mask the loss of Juszczyk with Dwelley and some personnel grouping changes. At the earliest, Juszczyk could be back for the November 11 game against Seattle, but if the team decides to keep him out the full six weeks, he’ll next take the field on December 1 in Baltimore. Either way, Shanahan seems comfortable inserting Dwelley when needed and has shown the aptitude to change his offense to offset the loss of his Pro Bowl fullback.
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