The Pittsburgh Steelers are in the midst of a transitional period throughout their roster. Everywhere from quarterback to the secondary is in a state of flux as the team prepares for the 2022 regular season. Speaking more specifically to the secondary, the cornerback position is one which will look different in 2022.
The team had two of their starting cornerbacks, Joe Haden and Ahkello Witherspoon, both hitting free agency this offseason, and the Steelers had a decision to make. They went after Witherspoon, but a deal didn’t happen right away. In fact, according to Witherspoon, the Steelers showed immediate interest in the cornerback they traded with the Seattle Seahawks for last season. But Witherspoon wanted to see what was out there before signing on the dotted line.
“They were interested in me at the beginning of free agency, but it was just appropriate for me to test the waters outside,” Witherspoon told the Steelers official website. “It’s just business and they were very respectful of that, encouraging of that nature of business. It was encouraging to go through that process and there be an offer on the table and come back and solidify and be in a place that I’m happy, in a place that I’m excited to play football.”
When Witherspoon thinks back to being traded to the Steelers, he saw it as an opportunity to take his game to the next level. Even though it didn’t happen immediately, Witherspoon made the most of his opportunity.
“They give me a great opportunity to take my game where I want to go,” said Witherspoon. “I enjoy playing with my brothers. Enjoy the City of Pittsburgh. And on top of being coached by such a great head coach in Mike Tomlin, it just made the decision pretty easy.”
Going back to 2021, Witherspoon saw himself as a healthy inactive for the vast majority of his time in Pittsburgh, up until Joe Haden was knocked out of the lineup with a foot injury. It was that moment when Witherspoon got his chance to show the Steelers, and the fans, what he can do.
“I think the injury to Joe Haden kind of opened up the door,” Witherspoon said. “That was kind of where my where my spot was. Throughout the entirety of the beginning of the season, I spoke with Mike Tomlin, and he was very honest about where we stood and what it was going to take for me to get on the field. That happened. And then it was just up to me to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Fast forwarding to 2022, Witherspoon will have some familiar faces in the secondary, players like Cameron Sutton, Justin Layne and James Pierre, but he’ll also see some new faces. None will be newer than former Buffalo Bills cornerback, and recent free agent acquisition, Levi Wallace. What was Witherspoon’s reaction when the team signed Wallace? Excitement.
“My reaction was just excited that our team got better,” Witherspoon added. “I’ve watched him play a few times and I’ve always liked his length and his combination of size and speed and just his feel for the game. But for me, it’s just about making the team better. Pushing myself, pushing him, pushing each other and I think when you have high caliber guys in one building, you’re going to make your team better and make your players better. And that’s what I’m here for.”
Witherspoon’s decision to return to the Steelers also means he will be playing for a new defensive coordinator in Teryl Austin. While Austin isn’t new to the Steelers, his role with the team will certainly be a difference between his first stint with the team, and his future with the organization. Nonetheless, Witherspoon sees Austin’s promotion as a chance to better the defense, especially the secondary.
“I think we’ll benefit from his experience and particularly the interest that he has in us in the back end. I know he listens to what we say. He understands the challenges that come with playing in this league on the back end and just being able to give him that intel, give him that insight and him make a complete approach that helps us win football games. I think he’s more than capable. Along with our head coach, they work together, and I’ve seen them do that, I’ve seen them communicate. I’ve seen them give and take and so I’m just excited that’s coming from somebody that I have intimate experience with.”
There are many people who believe the Steelers would wisely still be in the market for a cornerback. Whether it be in free agency or the 2022 NFL Draft, adding to the depth chart is something which could make an already solid secondary even better. There are plenty of names still on the free agent market, and the draft class of cornerbacks is deep.
Either way, being able to retain the services of Witherspoon, along with the addition of Wallace, will serve as an insurance policy if the team is unable to make any additions to the cornerback position in the near future.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the rest of free agency and the upcoming 2022 NFL Draft.