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What does Ahkello Witherspoon bring to the Steelers defense?

Taking a deeper look at the Steelers recently acquired cornerback.

Pittsburgh Steelers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers have struggled to find a nickel back who can replace Mike Hilton, and many in the media and Steelers Nation expected the Steelers to acquire a cornerback to help bolster the secondary after final roster cutdowns. That move happened when the Steelers traded a 2023 5th round pick to the Seattle Seahawks for Ahkello Witherspoon.

Witherspoon was originally drafted early in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers, the same round the Steelers drafted Cameron Sutton. The 49ers did not re-sign Witherspoon after his rookie contract expired, and he signed a $4 million, 1-year contract with the Seattle Seahawks, who traded him to the Steelers.

Ahkello Witherspoon played one game against the Steelers, in Week 3 of 2019. Witherspoon had a great start to that season and had a phenomenal passer rating against until this happened:

Steelers vs. 49ers, 2019, 3rd quarter, 5:54
Ahkello Witherspoon (#23) is the 2nd defensive back from the bottom of the screen.

Witherspoon is tasked with covering JuJu Smith-Schuster, but Smith Schuster dismisses him with one quick arm swipe and he’s gone. Witherspoon would later leave the game with injury. He would miss the middle of the season then return to start the last 5 games, but he couldn’t match the success he had before that Smith-Schuster touchdown.

In 2020 Ahkello Witherspoon lost his starting job, and faced more injuries, which led to one of the more interesting games of his career.

In Week 5 San Francisco was in trouble. They were down multiple cornerbacks and with COVID restrictions couldn’t just bring in new players. Witherspoon was nursing a hamstring injury but they kept him active because they didn’t have anyone to replace him on the active roster. His hamstring was tight in warmups so they started former Pittsburgh Steeler Brian Allen, giving him the first defensive snaps of his career. It wasn’t good. Allen allowed over 120 yards on 6 targets with a touchdown, in less than a half of football.

Allen was benched and Witherspoon replaced him in the middle of the second quarter, and helped stop the bleeding, at least on his side.

Dolphins vs. 49ers, 2020
Ahkello Witherspoon is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

Witherspoon executes the switch, stays with his man and keeps his eyes on the rest of the field as well. Good execution and Ryan Fitzpatrick has to throw the ball elsewhere.

Dolphins vs. 49ers, 2020
Ahkello Witherspoon is the cornerback to the top of the screen.

Again Witherspoon shows the ability to stay with his target while keeping his eyes on the rest of the field, you can see his footwork reacting to the receiver trying to get around him outside, shrinking the field for his receiver’s route. Quarterbacks aren’t going to challenge that coverage, and Fitzpatrick went from attacking Bryan Allen to avoiding Ahkello Witherspoon.

Witherspoon was only targeted once, giving up a 6 yard catch while playing over half the game, but there was a negative play. One that it is important to cover.

Dolphins vs. 49ers, 2020
Ahkello Witherspoon covering TE Mike Gesicki.

Witherspoon in tight coverage on Mike Gesicki, and two things stand out. The first one is how tall Witherspoon is. Gesicki is 6’6” tall, and Witherspoon is nearly as tall as him. The second is how easy it is for the ref to throw the flag on this play for pass interference. Witherspoon has been called for 15 penalties, with 12 accepted for 111 yards in 24 starts the last three years. You don’t want him playing receivers tight to the line.

Dolphins vs. 49ers, 2020
Ahkello Witherspoon is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

I wanted to throw this play in to show a good run defense play from Witherspoon. Witherspoon isn’t a good run defender, but it isn’t from being shy at tackling. Here he handles his responsibility and makes the tackle on the runner. Good work.

After the game reporters asked the coach why he started Brian Allen and let him play into the second quarter when he was struggling so much. The reply was that they had no one to replace Allen with until Witherspoon came to the coaches to say he was willing to play.

That brought up more questions, but the important thing to note was Witherspoon had missed that week of practice, wasn’t good to go before the game, but came in and shut down the Dolphins deep passing to his side of the field.

And that was playing hurt, when he is healthy, Witherspoon can be downright dynamic.

Cardinals vs. 49ers, 2020
Ahkello Witherspoon is covering Christian Kirk.

Witherspoon has length, speed and athleticism. His adjustment to the ball here is fantastic, showing off why he can be a dynamic defender, especially on deep balls.

Witherspoon had flashes of greatness, but too many injuries and was not re-signed when his rookie deal expired. He signed with Seattle this offseason, but didn’t fit the Seahawks defense and they were willing to part with him for a 5th round pick while still paying over half his salary.


Witherspoon in 2021

Looking at his play this preseason is a great way to show what Ahkello Witherspoon’s weaknesses are.

Seahawks vs Raiders 2020 preseason
Ahkello Witherspoon (#2) is the corner to the bottom of the screen.

Despite being injury plagued in his career, Witherspoon still has speed and is still a lockdown corner on deep routes like this. One of his best traits is basically never needing help on these field-stretching routes.

Seahawks vs Raiders 2020 preseason
Ahkello Witherspoon is the corner to the bottom of the screen.

Witherspoon doesn’t like to be physical in his routes, he isn’t very good at it so he tries to cover receivers without getting physical. That makes it really hard to defend a route like this one. John Brown is open here, he doesn’t make the catch, but he’s open, because Witherspoon doesn’t challenge this route physically at all.

Seahawks vs Raiders 2020 preseason
Ahkello Witherspoon is the corner to the bottom of the screen.

Witherspoon is quick. He breaks on this in route and hits the receiver right after the ball gets there. This would be fine on most downs where you are playing off coverage, but this is 3rd and 3, and Witherspoon is bailing at the snap, conceding the first down. Seattle wants corners that can press receivers and disrupt their routes, not ones that do this.

Seahawks vs Raiders 2020 preseason
Ahkello Witherspoon is the corner to the bottom of the screen.

Witherspoon getting to this ball is remarkable. He can make pretty crazy plays look easy. He also frequently seems to suffer from plays like this, where despite getting to the ball, he doesn’t finish the play and the receiver makes a good second effort catch.

Seahawks vs Raiders 2020 preseason
Ahkello Witherspoon is the corner to the top of the screen.

This is ugly, and it sums up the biggest weaknesses of Ahkello Witherspoon. While I understand this is preseason, Witherspoon is avoiding contact with his blocker, he’s willing to give a lot of ground to do so. He’s not good taking on blockers, so he avoids doing it. He’ll go for the tackle when it comes to that, but he isn’t looking to initiate contact, he isn’t looking for the fight. When he can’t avoid physicality, like the Mike Gesicki matchup, he grabs and pulls because he isn’t good at it.

There’s one more thing to cover with Ahkello Witherspoon. Witherspoon is streaky. He’ll have stretches where he looks like a top tier cornerback in the NFL, and he’ll stack bad plays, and even let it turn into a bad stretch of games. Some of this is matchup dependent, His matchup with JuJu Smith-Schuster in 2019 broke his streak of great play because Smith-Schuster is a fantastic and highly physical route runner and Witherspoon has no answer for that physicality in the routes the Steelers ran at him.


Conclusion

So this brings us to the big question, how do the Steelers best utilize a player like Ahkello Witherspoon? His deep ball defensive strength and smart execution makes him a good fit for the Steven Nelson role on the right side of the defense (offensive left), where Cameron Sutton is slotted to start. But I don’t think he’ll take the starting role, because Sutton is more well-rounded than Witherspoon and better against the run.

Witherspoon is not an answer in the slot at all, but he could take over the role the Steelers were planning to play James Pierre in, a corner who comes in for nickel packages and plays outside while Cameron Sutton slides inside. In those sets Witherspoon would have less run defense responsibility and wouldn’t be asked to play tight coverage. He would be great in pattern matching zones where he could cover deep routes and not have to worry about short routes that require more physical defense.

If the Steelers can put Witherspoon in situations that play to his strengths and minimize his weaknesses, he can be a really valuable player.