The 49ers secondary has come under fire throughout the course of the season from fans and coaches alike. The lapses in coverage, big plays given up, late game breakdowns, and teams only targeting one side of the field have landed the secondary in a bit of hot water with the coaching staff as the season has progressed.

None of that was on display against the Broncos though, a team very much in the playoff hunt in the AFC. Leading the way for the secondary's overall solid performance were cornerback Akhello Witherspoon and nickel corner D.J. Reed.

Ahkello Witherspoon's upward trend


At the center of the struggles of the 49ers secondary is former third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon, who made a strong showing late last season as he filled in the starting role and looked like he would be the shutdown corner who possessed the length and instincts to be the #1 corner this season.

The season hasn't panned out that way. Witherspoon was benched earlier in the year and has been up and down. He recently was at the center of his head coach's ire when he threw his hands up in disgust after giving up a touchdown to Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. where he was viewed as essentially blaming the lack of help. Shanahan was asked if he was happy with that outburst and said "No, I am not. Man up. Don't put that on tape. We'll deal with it when we come in."

Throughout the course of this season he's shown signs of regression followed by signs of promise but has trended up in recent weeks. Against the Broncos, Witherspoon had as good a game as any to continue that upward trend. According to Pro Football Focus, since Week 10, quarterbacks have had a passer rating of 48.6 against him. In Weeks 1-9, opposing quarterbacks had a 123.2 passer rating. The Broncos targeted Witherspoon six times, on which he allowed two receptions for 18 yards.

The initial game plan for the Broncos was to target Witherspoon early and they did so right off the bat on their first play of the game.



Witherspoon is in press man, bump-and-run coverage with wide receiver Courtland Sutton along the far sideline. His only responsibility is running in the hip pocket of Sutton anywhere he goes, what's commonly referred to as "staying in phase." As he stays light on his feet, Witherspoon gets a jam on Sutton, who releases outside down the sideline on a go route and runs stride for stride with the bigger receiver, throwing his arm out briefly to feel the coverage.

Sutton gives the game away by turning his head early so Witherspoon does the same. His ability to feel his coverage and stay in phase with the receiver while looking back for the ball has improved in recent weeks and this was no exception. He gets his head around and stays patient while the play develops, leaping to try and tip the pass.



Broncos quarterback Case Keenum has a limited window to throw into thanks to the coverage by Witherspoon and puts it out a bit too far for Sutton, who can't make the one-handed grab.

Later in the game, Witherspoon again demonstrated the same patience he displayed above on a key drive in the game for the Broncos. They would later score on this drive but not because of Witherspoon.

The 49ers are in cover-6 "skate" with Witherspoon the "MEG" corner (Man Everywhere he Goes) covering receiver Tim Patrick (No. 81) on the weak side. Witherspoon shuffles to his right and lets Patrick release outside. He doesn't get a jam off the line, but corners in this scheme rarely do and that's probably more of a coaching point. Regardless, Witherspoon is in great position on the inside hip of the receiver and just a shade ahead of him that puts him in a spot where he can play any pass over the top or to the inside.



Keenum recognizes the leverage and the tight coverage by Witherspoon and puts the throw on the back shoulder of the receiver. It's a difficult throw for Keenum to make and Witherspoon likely recognized that was his only option for a throw. He stays in phase and fluid throughout the coverage with little wasted movement that allows him to flip his hips around and stick his arm in at the catch point. Patrick is unable to keep to his feet in bounds the pass falls incomplete.

It wasn't just in coverage either that Witherspoon made an impact. On several plays on the back end, he shut down Keenum's progressions by blanketing the receivers, forcing Keenum to throw short on several plays.



Keenum drops back and executes a hard play fake with a deep dig underneath a deep post route. Witherspoon is in a cover-3 off-man alignment but will lock man-to-man on any deep route over 10 yards. Here he runs with Patrick running the deep post. Witherspoon gets into his backpedal as Keenum looks deep to Patrick but Witherspoon gives no ground and doesn't turn to bail with Patrick. Instead, he widens his base as Patrick approaches, allowing him to pivot whichever way Patrick decides to break.

As Keenum looks off Patrick, Patrick collides with Witherspoon as he looks back for the pass but the coverage by Witherspoon gets Keenum to move on to his next progression before dumping the ball off incomplete to the running back.

In recent weeks, Witherspoon has also reliably covered some of the league's best receivers in Mike Evans (below), Odell Beckham Jr, and Doug Baldwin.


Against Baldwin in the recent game at Seattle, Witherspoon does a great job here of preventing Baldwin from getting a free release inside. Witherspoon's responsibility outside the numbers is to run with anything deep and prevent anything from getting inside him by playing a "wall" technique. In the past, this has burned Witherspoon because he's failed to get his head around to play the ball.



Here, he engages with Baldwin within five yards, gets his head around while hand fighting with the receiver, and sees that quarterback Russell Wilson is looking his way to throw. He gets his eyes back on the receiver before Wilson throws the pass and prevents Baldwin from making a play on the ball. Witherspoon expertly disengages contact while the pass is in the air and Baldwin is unable to come back to the pass.

Witherspoon faces another tough test this weekend against Seattle but his performances in recent weeks suggest he is trending up again. Witherspoon played well against Seattle a few weeks ago so there is no reason to believe he can't again.

D.J. Reed fills in at slot corner


The 49ers drafted D.J. Reed with the 142nd pick in the fifth round in the 2018 draft. Reed has seen extended playing time at the safety and nickel/slot cornerback spots due to injuries to Jimmy Ward, Adrian Colbert, and K'waun Williams.

Sunday against the Broncos, Robert Saleh inserted him as the nickel cornerback against a team that played primarily 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers), and he played a total of 65 defensive snaps, good for just over 87% of the total defensive plays. His impact was felt right away.

Reed earned the second highest grade on defense from Pro Football Focus with an 87.9. He had two total pressures and one sack off the edge on a nickel blitz. In pass defense, while he did surrender six receptions on six targets, he only gave up 15 receiving yards as Keenum was frequently forced to his checkdowns.

In run defense, he made his presence felt with several tackles for losses or minimal gain by the offense. Reed (No. 32) is lined up with outside leverage on the twins stack slot receiver with Richard Sherman in off coverage. The Broncos run a toss play to the right after motioning fullback Andy Janovich to wing a position on the right.



The trio blocking combination of the fullback, right tackle, and right guard gets out on the edge as running back Philip Lindsay takes the toss. Reed sees this and immediately knives through the lead blockers, none of who attempt to block him, and Reed lowers his shoulder into Lindsay before taking him down.

Some of the traits on Reed's scouting profile said that he possessed the "makeup speed to chase down strays," was a "tenacious tackler" and a "solo tackler who can do his own dirty work" and all of that was on display on this next play in against the pass.



The Broncos are running a curl/flat concept called "hank." The concept is designed to take advantage of perimeter and underneath coverages. If the flat route pulls the nickel defender or linebacker out, the curl should be open behind it. If the nickel or linebacker drops under the curl route, the flat will be open. It's a simple zone cover-3 beater.

Reed chases the receiver DaeSean Hamilton (No. 17) out to the flat but linebacker Fred Warner (No. 48) and Witherspoon bracket the curl route. Keenum dumps it out to the flat and Reed closes ground in a hurry before Keenum even throws the ball.



Reed likely knows, based on Hamilton's body language, that Keenum is probably going to dump it off because nothing is open. He sees Hamilton bracing for a hit while preparing to catch the pass. Reed drops him for a loss.



Reed's presence was also felt in the pass rush where he recorded a sack and forced fumble on Keenum early in the third quarter. The 49ers are in a cover-3 shell but send Reed on a nickel blitz from the middle slot. The coverage rotates over the trips side to account for the blitz and the middle linebacker picks up the deep middle curl route. Reed speeds in off the edge and beats the block of Lindsay before sacking Keenum and forcing the fumble, showing off a quickness and ability to stay light on his feet, allowing him to disrupt the play and stall the offense.

The 49ers will have a decision to make at the vital slot corner role after giving Williams an extension this offseason. If Reed continues to play well in this position, they 49ers may decide to move on from Williams.

Marcel Harris makes key stops


2018's sixth-round pick Marcell Harris also turned in a fantastic defensive performance, recording five tackles and allowing just one reception. His biggest contribution to the game occurred before the midway point of the fourth quarter on a crucial drive that the Broncos needed points on.



The Broncos are in a condensed formation out of 11 personnel and running inside zone to the right. Keenum hands off the ball to Lindsay up the middle with Harris out on the edge. Harris knives through the block of the receiver on the edge and into the backfield. His scouting report listed one of his top attributes as his ability to get downhill as a tackler.



On third down, Harris, as the force defender with responsibility to "force" the ball carrier back inside, controlled the blocker and got into the backfield aggressively to tackle the ball carrier.

On the very next play, Harris came up with a big stop on fourth down that allowed the 49ers to get the ball back and chew up more clock.



Here, the Broncos were running trying to run a pick play with the vertical threat receiver trying to impede the path Harris could take to the running back in the flat to make the stop on fourth down. If Harris had tried to take an underneath path, Lindsay would've been wide open in the flat for a first down and more.



Instead, Harris instinctively goes over the top, briefly takes contact with his own man, but gets over the top and outside quick. He tracks the inside hip of Lindsay with leverage inside-out toward the sideline (to prevent cutbacks to the middle) and shoots in for the open field tackle.

The play was the difference between the Broncos scoring on that drive and potentially winning the game on their next scoring drive. Instead, they gave the ball back to 49ers to run the clock out before scoring again and pulling within a score.

The performance of the young 49ers secondary players is exactly what the coaching staff wants to see right now against a potential playoff team and they were vital to closing the game out. It gives them something build off of going into the last three games of the season and heading into the offseason. These are exactly the kinds of performances that can solidify a young, strong secondary, and they're going to need to find that kind of confidence again heading into the second of two matches against Seattle this weekend.

All gifs and images courtesy of the NFL.

All statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless otherwise stated.