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Is Ahkello Witherspoon cementing his spot as a starting corner for the Steelers?

As Whitherspoon gets more playing time, it’s starting to become clear why the Steelers chose to trade for him.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a lot of things they need to figure out on defense. With only four games remaining, and no margin for error if they want to make the postseason, the Steelers have to get their run defense, which is statistically the worse they have had in the Super Bowl era, straightened out. But throwing everything at stopping the run could also leave the Steelers susceptible to the pass. With Joe Haden out the last four games, the job has become even more difficult. But for the last two games, Ahkello Witherspoon has made a case for being a key component of the Steelers secondary. Is he the player to hold down one of the outside corner starting positions for the last four games of the 2021 regular season? That is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

Just prior to the start of the 2021 regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers made a trade with the Seattle Seahawks for cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. The Steelers sent there 2023 fifth-round draft pick to Seattle in exchange for the corner. In the move, the Steelers only inherited $1.5 million of the $4 million the Seahawks signed Witherspoon for in the offseason as the remainder was a signing bonus.

Inactive for Week 1, Witherspoon received a helmet in Week 2 due to the injury of Joe Haden. Only playing four defense of snaps, Witherspoon was credited with giving up a 61-yard touchdown to the Raiders and had a Pro Football Focus score of 34.8 for the game. After this, Witherspoon did not get a helmet for the Steelers for quite some time.

Following the injury to Joe Haden in Week 10 against the Detroit Lions, Witherspoon was back on the game-day active roster in Week 11 against the Chargers. Only seeing 20 defensive snaps followed by 15 the next week at Cincinnati, Witherspoon gave up three receptions on four targets for 55 yards and had one pass break up combined between the two weeks according to Pro Football Focus.

In Week 13, the Steelers called on Witherspoon for the start against the Baltimore Ravens. Credited with three missed tackles, Witherspoon did much better in coverage as he gave up three receptions on five targets for 37 yards with a pass break up on 68 snaps according to PFF.

In week 14, Witherspoon got the start again and came through in a big way for the Steelers. Credited with giving up four receptions on nine targets for 43 yards, Witherspoon pulled in two interceptions and had a quarterback rating when he was targeting of only 19.4 according to PFF. For this reason, Witherspoon had an 89.5 grade for the game along with a 90.5 pass coverage grade in his 61 snaps.

So is this the Ahkello Witherspoon Steelers fans could expect to see when given the opportunity? Should he be the starter after the hopeful return of Joe Haden? These are questions that will not be answered easily until the Steelers make a decision, but let’s at least check the film to see how things are trending.

The Film Line:

Akhello Witherspoon has played much better in the last two weeks than he did earlier in the season when he was outright terrible. But how good was he? Let’s look and see what we can learn beyond the broadcast angles and stat lines.

Steelers vs. Vikings, 1st quarter, 15:00

Akhello Witherspoon is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Akhello Witherspoon has shown in the past that he is a good deep cover cornerback, but not the best covering short routes. The Vikings have seen Witherspoon before, he started against them when he was a 49er, and to start this game they went right at Witherspoon with short routes, and early on they had success in this strategy.

You can see Witherspoon’s big cushion he gives. This lets him read the quarterback’s eyes, something he tends to do a lot of, but it also puts the offense in position to connect on these quick hitters for decent yards.

Steelers vs. Vikings, 1st quarter, 3:37

Akhello Witherspoon is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Even though Witherspoon is best in deep coverage, the Steelers don’t have a lot of trust built up with Witherspoon, and it shows up here to the Steelers detriment. Sutton runs under the natural pick of the deep crosses, putting himself completely out of position to defend the route Justin Jefferson is running. To pull this off, either Minkah Fitzpatrick or Akhello Witherspoon needs to help Sutton defend this route, but neither does, and Sutton has no chance to stop a good throw here.

Whether or not Sutton could have made a better choice, seeing Minkah Fitzpatrick leave Justin Jefferson in a 1v1 matchup to provide help to Akhello Witherspoon while Sutton is getting out of Witherspoon’s way shows they don’t have a lot of trust or chemistry yet.

Steelers vs. Vikings, 2nd quarter, 13:01

Akhello Witherspoon is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

The Steelers were running a lot of man in this game. On this play Justin Jefferson again burns a corner, this time it is Witherspoon and this time Cameron Sutton notices and comes back to make the tackle. The Steelers normally defend these routes with a lot of switches and zone defense, but with Witherspoon in, they simplified the defense and reduced the mental and communication load. There were some downsides to that decision.

Steelers vs. Vikings, 3rd quarter, 6:23

Akhello Witherspoon is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

There were also payoffs, like this great job in quarters coverage in the end zone. Witherspoon sees his man turning to look for the ball, steps in front and takes away any chance of a completion here. While the Vikings escaped with an incompletion and a field goal here, this is a portent of things to come.

Steelers vs. Vikings, 3rd quarter, 2:11

Akhello Witherspoon is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

Steelers are in cover-3 here, and Witherspoon is dropping deep. In quarters and cover-3, Witherspoon is a deadly deep defender and teams aren’t going to test him often. Here the Vikings try to split the deep and underneath coverage, but Devin Bush does a great job dropping quickly to get a hand on the ball, throwing off the trajectory enough to bring about a tipped ball that Witherspoon capitalizes on for his first interception with the Steelers.

Steelers vs. Vikings, 4th quarter, 11:00

Akhello Witherspoon is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Here we see the Steelers attempt to switch Witherspoon’s assignment. Look at Minkah Fitzpatrick and the lengths he goes to in communicating the switch to Witherspoon in the moment. This switch is designed to put Witherspoon in position to defend a deep post or deep crossers like the route that beat Cameron Sutton for the first touchdown of the game. The Vikings run the route vertically, taking Witherspoon out of the play and leaving Sutton 1v1 again. With the benefit of a decent push-off Sutton is beaten on this route. But the key here is the struggle to communicate the more complex parts of the Steelers coverage to a corner who joined the team mid-season.

Steelers vs. Vikings, 4th quarter, 5:08

Remember that portent? Late in the game the Vikings try to go back to the short routes to attack Witherspoon, but he’s ready for this slant and it never should have been thrown. A good physical and aggressive move puts the Steelers back on offense with Witherspoon’s second interception of the game.

The Point:

Witherspoon is a good man defender, and when he’s getting physical without taking penalties he’s a really good man defense corner. He needs work on his communication and understanding of some of the nuances of the Steelers defense, but it is going to be hard to put him on the bench when he leads all Steeler cornerbacks and is tied with Minkah Fitzpatrick for the lead in interceptions on the Steelers this season.

Akhello Witherspoon has been a starter before, and at times has been a good one. The Steelers are getting good play from Witherspoon right now, whether that is from growth as a player or just another good streak we will have to wait and see.