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Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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‘Vintage’ Richard Sherman and emergence of Ahkello Witherspoon big for 49ers defense

Sep 11, 2019 at 11:35 AM--

The San Francisco 49ers defense carried the team to a win during Week 1, forcing four takeaways, including three interceptions and two returned for touchdowns. It was the kind of debut the unit needed to have after setting NFL records last year for the fewest takeaways and interceptions in a single season.

Richard Sherman looked like Richard Sherman as he hauled in a Jameis Winston-thrown pass and raced into the end zone. The veteran cornerback joined 49ers Live this week and discussed his performance on Sunday.

"I don't think I ever got a pick the first game of the season," Sherman told team reporter Keiana Martin. "It felt really good. It was good for the team."

If Sherman is back to his Pro Bowl and All-Pro form, it could mean big things for the 49ers defense this season. Injuries, after all, hindered him in 2018, his first season with San Francisco.

"Sunday was a good representation of 'vintage' Richard Sherman," the cornerback said while using air quotes on the word "vintage." The term isn't being used as a knock on Sherman's age, but a reference to the kind of play he displayed during his seven Hall-of-Fame-worthy seasons with the Seattle Seahawks.

"It's just feeling good, being in rhythm," Sherman continued. "Obviously, there's a lot to clean up, had penalties that I need to get out, missed a tackle or two, and those things, you've got to clean up. It's just getting the rust off and being out there the first game, but we were still able to get the win, so I'm happy."

Another player who looked impressive was third-year cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. He too had an interception returned for a touchdown, which sealed the victory for San Francisco. Witherspoon is coming off an up and down 2018 campaign but had a strong offseason.

Sherman has never doubted the young cornerback's ability but noticed growth in another area.

"I've just seen him grow mentally," Sherman said of Witherspoon. "He's always been physically gifted. He can move, he can cover with the best of them, he can catch, he can do everything an elite corner can do, but mentally, he's grown tremendously. He's taken great strides, and he works at it constantly.

"He's a guy that's a perfectionist and wants to be perfect at everything, wants to be great at everything that he does, and I think the mental side and just having the mental fortitude is something that he's worked on, and it's taken his game to a whole other level."

Sherman gives a lot of credit for Sunday's takeaways to the 49ers' revamped defensive front. The team already had Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and added pass rushers Dee Ford and Nick Bosa this offseason.

Then there is second-year linebacker Fred Warner, who was responsible for a forced fumble against the Buccaneers.

"A ton of credit needs to go to Fred Warner," Sherman said. "He's worked the 'Peanut Punches,' as they call it, over and over repeatedly in practice. It's something that he's perfected, and he causes a lot of chaos out there."

Warner, who also joined Martin on 49ers Live, says he feels more confident heading into his sophomore NFL season.

"Now, going from year one to year two, having that experience that I have from last year, just being able to play a lot faster, and know the guys around me, that's probably the biggest difference," Warner said.

The 49ers remained on the East Coast this week and are practicing in Youngstown, Ohio in preparation for their Week 2 matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals.

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