2021 South Side Questions: Where Will Witherspoon Fit Into Secondary With Joe Haden’s Return?

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2021 season is underway, and they are hoping for a better outcome in comparison to last season. After starting out 11-0, they finished the year 1-4 in the regular season, and then lost in the Wildcard Round to the Cleveland Browns, ignited by a 0-28 first quarter.

They have lost a large number of key players in the offseason, like Maurkice Pouncey, Bud Dupree, Alejandro Villanueva, David DeCastro, Mike Hilton, and Steven Nelson, but they’ve also made significant additions as the months have gone on, notably Trai Turner, Melvin Ingram, Joe Schobert, and Ahkello Witherspoon. They also added Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, Kendrick Green, and Dan Moore Jr., all of whom are starting.

There isn’t much left to do but to play the games at this point. Even if they play them poorly. They still have a lot to figure out, though, such as what Matt Canada’s offense is going to look like in any given week, or how the new-look secondary and offensive line is going to play.

These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked. There is rarely a concrete answer, but this is your venue for exploring the topics we present through all their uncertainty.

Question: Where will Ahkello Witherspoon fit in the secondary with Joe Haden set to return?

Joe Haden, the Steelers’ top cornerback for the last several years, has missed the past four games due to a foot injury. He finally resumed practice this week, and was able to be a full participant on Friday. He is expected to play this weekend, barring a setback.

Ahkello Witherspoon, who had been a healthy scratch almost all season prior to that injury, began to carve out a role in the secondary in the interim, and that included surpassing James Pierre as the top outside reserve, starting the last two games. He recorded two interceptions against the Minnesota Vikings’ Kirk Cousins, who only had three on the season heading into last week’s game.

But with the secondary set to be completely healthy, where does he fit? Will he even dress? Arthur Maulet is the team’s primary slot defender. Pierre and Justin Layne are core special teams players. Yet they haven’t been comfortable allowing Pierre to see even a single snap on defense since being benched two games ago.

Layne has actually played 18 defensive snaps over the course of the past two weeks. Would they possibly consider him being the top outside reserve on gameday if they’re committed to dressing him for special teams?

Or will they deactivate him or Pierre—or find a roster spot somewhere else and dress all six of their cornerbacks? Robert Spillane returning doesn’t make that math easier, as Buddy Johnson would just go back to the inactive list. If he does dress, he will resume the top outside reserve role, but will he play outside of dime packages?

Here is where you will inevitably mention that Devin Bush should be the one to lose his hat. You know you were going to. Just say it. You’ll feel better.

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