The Pittsburgh Steelers made a number of moves in the months leading up to the start of the regular season to shore up depth on the defensive side of the ball. They signed edge rusher Melvin Ingram shortly before training camp started. They traded for inside linebacker Joe Schobert. They even signed safety Karl Joseph to the practice squad.
While they are still waiting for more contributions from Joseph, the bigger question for many has been about Ahkello Witherspoon, a former starting cornerback for whom they gave up a fifth-round pick to acquire. He has been a healthy scratch for much of the year so far, and was burned for a long touchdown in his limited playing time. Senior defensive assistant Teryl Austin was asked about his lack of playing time earlier today.
“I think when you look at where we are on game day, you have your top three guys, and then the fourth corner, really, that guy is mostly a special teams player”, he said, “and J Layne is a heck of a special teams player. He had a great stop as a gunner in the game this past week”.
That would be Justin Layne, the third-year cornerback who has nine defensive snaps, but 81 special teams snaps, on the season. He already has six tackles on the year so far, with five of those coming on special teams. Witherspoon has a few seasons of 100-plus snaps on special teams under his belt, but that’s not how the Steelers view him right now.
“Until that happens, until there’s a switch in that regard, that’s where he’ll be”, Austin said of the veteran. “He knows he’s got to really improve in that area. I know he’s just got here, but try to improve in that area. And when he gets an opportunity to get up, maybe he’ll make the best of it”.
“When it comes down to it, the fourth corner and the fourth safety, those guys are special teams considerations all day, and they should be, because you hope you’re not getting to your fourth corner and your fourth safety in a game”, he added.
Some will deem it notable to remind that the Steelers’ acquisition of Witherspoon via trade also carried with it his compensatory value, entering into Pittsburgh’s compensatory pick formula. Acquiring him will result in canceling out the sixth-round compensatory pick they were projected to get for the loss of Mike Hilton.
But that is old news. What happens with him next must be only about football. If he can contribute and help the team win, you play him, but if you don’t feel he is one of your best options, then you have to work accordingly. The team already has Tre Norwood, Arthur Maulet, and James Pierre working at cornerback or in the slot.