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Is Ahkello Witherspoon worthy of a big contract from the Steelers in 2022?

After being a true asset the final six games of the regular season, has Ahkello Witherspoon earned more time and a bigger salary with the Steelers in 2022?

Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a number of players who are set to hit free agency at the beginning of the league year in March. Before testing the waters, the Steelers have first crack at offering a deal if they so choose. So who should get a deal? Looking at the players one at a time and what they bring to the Steelers, up this week is cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.

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:

After being traded to the Steelers in September for a 2023 fifth-round draft pick, Ahkello Witherspoon only saw action in one game through the first 10 weeks of the 2021 NFL season. In that game, Witherspoon only played four defensive snaps but gave up one completion on two targets for a 61-yard touchdown. But according to Pro Football Reference, this was the only touchdown Witherspoon gave up on the season.

Getting a chance again in Week 11, Witherspoon gave a solid effort for two weeks while only playing about a quarter of the snaps before being called upon in Week 13 against the Baltimore Ravens. Coming on strong the final six games of the regular season, Witherspoon ended 2021 with a career-high three interceptions and tied his career high of nine passes defensed despite only appearing in nine games with three starts. Witherspoon only gave up 14 completions on the season on 37 targets for a mere 37.8% completion percentage and had a quarterback rating against him when targeted of 35.1 according to Pro Football Reference.

One statistic which did stand out in a bad way with Witherspoon was he had a 28.6% missed tackles percentage as he was credited with six missed tackles with only 15 total tackles on the season.

So once he got his opportunity, Ahkello Witherspoon came on very strong for the Steelers. Was it getting to know the system, or were there other factors involved? Let’s check the film.


The Film Line:

Akhello Witherspoon saw his first action for the Steelers 16 days after they traded a fifth-round draft pick for him on September 3rd, late in the game against the Raiders, with the Steelers trailing by two points.

Steelers vs. Raiders, 4th quarter, 9:54.

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

Not a great play there. You can tell he’s new and isn’t confident in where he’s supposed to be or how to navigate traffic in the Steelers system. Fortunately, this time the ball fell incomplete after the collision.

Steelers v Raiders, 4th quarter, 9:44.

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

This one, did not fall incomplete, but instead put the Raiders up by two scores and all but seal the win for the team from Las Vegas.

Understandably, Akhello Witherspoon did not see the field again for over two months.

Steelers vs. Ravens, 4th quarter, 6:36.

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

After playing better in spot duty against the Chargers and Bengals with Joe Haden out, Akhello Witherspoon took over the starting job from James Pierre. While teams had found great success attacking James Pierre deep, Akhello Witherspoon showed that wasn’t going to be the case with him right away. It was a great cover-3 rep here as Witherspoon reads the deep routes correctly and puts himself in position to make a play on the ball. This one fell incomplete, but he’d make up for it in the next game.

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

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

This is one of my favorite clips of the Steelers pass defense, because it reminds me of what we saw in 2019. Devin Bush finally looked like he was moving well in coverage in this game. He gets to the ball on this play, and Akhello Witherspoon turns the deflected ball into an interception.

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

No deflection on this one, just Witherspoon beating the receiver to his mark. Witherspoon showed great awareness and ball-skills on deep passes, and on shorter passes, he did a great job of sticking to his man and getting in the way of the ball.

Steelers vs. Titans, 2nd quarter, 1:18.

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

Here he does it again. Defending these in-cutting routes was a strength of Witherspoon, which is nice because these routes are a staple against man coverage. Witherspoon in 2021 was looking like an elite man cover corner.

Steelers vs. Browns, 2nd quarter, 7:09.

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

For his third interception of the season Witherspoon took away an out-breaking route. You can see Witherspoon has inside leverage at the stem of the route, but he cuts under the receiver, and when the ball is thrown behind the receiver, Witherspoon is there to make the play.

Steelers vs. Titans, 2nd quarter, 8:16.

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

Can’t have it all be good. Dave mentioned Witherspoon’s abominable tackling, and it is on full display here as Witherspoon gives his best Pro-Bowl level effort and gives the ball carrier the old two-hand tap treatment. Sadly that doesn’t qualify as a tackle in real football.


The Point:

Witherspoon is a coverage specialist, and he was a fantastic addition to the defense in coverage, but when it comes to tackling or helping in run defense, he’s a liability. If the Steelers can cover for that, he’ll be a real asset. If they can’t, Witherspoon may be best limited to coming in on sub package plays where he can take a coverage role with less run responsibility.

What the Steelers ultimately need to decide is how they would utilize Witherspoon should they keep him for 2022. Based on this, it would determine how much the Steelers would be willing to pay Witherspoon versus what they could get in another cornerback. Knowing his poor tackling which makes him a liability in run defense, paying Witherspoon as a corner they expect to play 100% of the snaps on defense may not be in the cards.