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Film Room: Ahkello Witherspoon’s Performance Vs Chiefs

Midway through the offseason, when the Steelers surprisingly released a veteran starting cornerback in Steven Nelson, after having already lost a slot starter in Mike Hilton to the rival Cincinnati Bengals, it was clear the position was in flux heading into the 2021 season. Ultimately, the team chose to bet on its in-house talent, namely in the belief that Cam Sutton could become a full time starter on the boundary and that players such as James Pierre, Arthur Maulet, and Tre Norwood could step up to fill Sutton’s sub package role.

Amidst the latter half of training camp, Kevin Colbert attempted to shore up depth at the position, sending a 2023 fifth rounder over to Seattle in exchange for Ahkello Witherspoon. While he struggled to find a helmet at times early in the season, Witherspoon has arguably been the teams most consistent cornerback since being permanently thrust into the lineup in a Week 13 home matchup against Baltimore.

Even while playing just 27 defensive snaps against Kansas City as Joe Haden’s snap count increased, Witherspoon continued to jump off the tape, providing tight coverage throughout the contest, not allowing a single catch while recording a pass breakup on the afternoon. While nobody will confuse Witherspoon for having the tackling chops of his peers Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton, he has provided the team with man coverage ability, ball skills, and playmaking ability in coverage that should be enough to warrant consideration for a potential contract extension this offseason. Today, we’ll be taking a deeper dive into the film from this past weekend’s matchup in Kansas City.

Film Analysis

Although he was rarely targeted in the 27 defensive snaps he recorded, most of which came on obvious passing downs, Witherspoon was able to string together some solid reps in an otherwise dismal afternoon for the Steelers. His first target of the game came on a free play, with Patrick Mahomes tossing up a jump ball just past the pylon intended for running back Darrel Williams.

Witherspoon, working out of a bail technique in a Cover 4 scheme, does a great job of squeezing the running back toward the sideline from his zone shuffle, locating the football, and high pointing it to secure the interception. Although it was nullified by an offsides penalty, defensive backs are often caught panicking in free play opportunities, thus making it great to see Witherspoon remain calm and consistent in his technique to produce an impressive rep in coverage. Since his initial insertion into the lineup, it has become abundantly clear that along with Minkah Fitzpatrick, Witherspoon sits a tier above the rest of the current Steelers secondary in the ball skills department.

 

On the very next rep, this time operating in a man coverage assignment in the Steelers two man buzz scheme, where the safeties provide shallow inside help, Witherspoon does a great job of blanketing a slant to the trips side. At the snap, Witherspoon opts to deploy catch man, keeping his feet planted at six yards depth and maintaining his inside leverage. At the top of the route, Witherspoon gets hands on the receiver, working to flatten his route short of the sticks and staying on the upfield shoulder. While the pass was completed for a first down on the opposite side of the field, this rep shows both Witherspoon’s ability and IQ, as he is able to use down and distance, area of the field, and formational tendencies to stay prepared for the slant route.

 

Since joining the lineup in Week 13, it has been readily apparent that Witherspoon is extremely confident in his speed and coverage abilities, allowing him to routinely operate out of press coverage, even when lacking safety help. Below, with the Steelers in a Cover 1 man scheme, Witherspoon aligns in press coverage with outside leverage. At the snap, Witherspoon mistimes his two hand jam, losing his outside leverage in the process. Nonetheless, he remains calm, transitions fluidly, locates the near hip and carries the receiver vertically before throttling down in phase to undercut the comeback.

 

Although it doesn’t jump off the tape, I thought the rep below might have been Witherspoon’s most impressive on the night. Operating out of his deep ⅓ assignment in the Steelers Cover 3 scheme, Witherspoon stays patient in his shuffle before breaking on a quick “access” out route. Upon identifying a scramble drill situation, Witherspoon flips his hips, transitioning into a faceguard technique and plastering his man up the sideline and across the goal line.

As many cornerbacks are quick to bail out when operating in the deep ⅓ , it is invaluable to have a guy like Witherspoon who is confident enough to slow his shuffle and stay in phase to contest “access” routes into the boundary. While access routes are designed to beat the coverage, a cornerback who is supremely confident in his abilities can make the coverage more effective by slowing down their tempo until they are threatened vertically, which is far easier said than done.

 

Later in the half, working out of a Cover 2 man scheme, Witherspoon opts to once again operate out of a bail technique in the red zone. At the snap, Witherspoon stays patient in his shuffle, maintaining inside leverage before working to speed up his shuffle and squeeze the receiver to the sideline downfield.

After identifying the back shoulder throw, Witherspoon finds himself unable to locate the football, at which point he speed turns, gets hands on the upfield shoulder, and see’s the ball fall harmlessly out of bounds. While the rep looks somewhat clunky, and I am never a proponent of using a bail technique in man coverage, Witherspoon’s confidence and ability to remain calm with the ball in the air is once again visible on this rep.

 

Later in the series, this time working as a flat defender in the Steelers invert Cover 3 scheme, Witherspoon weaves to gain depth and maintain outside leverage, occupying the hole shot window to force a dump off to the flat. Upon forcing the checkdown, Witherspoon flies downfield, closing ground rapidly and forcing Darrel Williams to juke into the waiting arms of Joe Schobert. While his coverage and pursuit on this play are essentially perfect, he undeniably needs to get better in the tackling department, where potentially adding a “peanut punch” to his repertoire could provide him an outlet to improve without magically becoming more physical.

 

Finally, with the Chiefs threatening in the red zone after the now infamous failed fourth down toss attempt, Ahkello Witherspoon was able to secure his appearance on the stat sheet with an impressive pass breakup. Once again operating out of a Cover 2 man under scheme, Witherspoon once again opts to work out of catch man with heavy inside leverage, working to force tough throws beyond the numbers.

At the snap, Witherspoon forces Byron Pringle to take an outside release, moving into trail technique and keying the near hip. After breaking on an inside move, Witherspoon allows separation as Pringle works toward the corner of the end zone on a nicely run post corner route. Working from out of phase, Witherspoon closes to the near hip rapidly, arriving at the catch point to play through the receivers hands and secure an impressive pass breakup.

Ultimately, this rep shows both Witherspoon’s athleticism as well as his discipline in coverage, consistently reading his keys and remaining calm with the ball in the air. At the end of the day, confidence is the most important weapon a cornerback has at their disposal, and untimely celebrations included, it’s impossible to claim Witherspoon is lacking in that department.

 

 

 

Overall, the next two weeks, with important matchups against division rivals in Baltimore and Cleveland, will likely prove important in the teams decision on what to do at the position moving forward. As the team has glaring holes up front on both sides of the ball, as well as the potential for one to open at quarterback, Witherspoon could prove to be a cost effective option in shoring up the cornerback position ahead of the 2022 campaign.

Likewise, I believe that both due to the fact that he has simply been the team’s best cover corner of recent, as well as related to a potential audition for next year, Witherspoon’s snap count must increase over the next two weeks, even if at the expense of a healthy Joe Haden and Cam Sutton. Particularly if the Steelers are able to keep Cleveland and Baltimore behind the chains and force obvious passing situations, something which is far from a given at this juncture, I fully expect Witherspoon to continue making impactful plays in coverage.

If nothing else, Witherspoon has quietly, along with Minkah Fitzpatrick, T.J. Watt, and Cam Heyward, served as one of the bright spots on a defense which has struggled mightily down the stretch this season. Be on the lookout for his impact over the last two games this season, as given the current situation at the position, I would be far from surprised if he is starting on the boundary opening day in 2022.

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