Ahkello Witherspoon Tape Evaluation: Week 13-14
When the Steelers first acquired Ahkello Witherspoon from the Seattle Seahawks in exchange for a 2023 fifth round pick, it seemed all but a formality that the 26 year old, five year NFL veteran would find a role as an important depth piece. After all, following an impressive career with the Colorado Buffaloes, Witherspoon had started 33 of his 47 career games prior to the 2021 season, tallying a healthy 117 tackles, four interceptions, 24 pass deflections, and a touchdown in his four prior seasons.
Nonetheless, after a disappointing start to the season in which he only cracked 20 defensive snaps once through the first 12 weeks of the season, Witherspoon was finally thrust into the starting lineup out of necessity in Week 13, playing upwards of 60 snaps against Baltimore and Minnesota. Over two weeks of starting experience, Witherspoon has accumulated nine solo stops, two interceptions, and four pass deflections. Perhaps even more importantly, thus far he has limited opposing receivers ability to convert explosive plays downfield, showing vast improvement over James Pierre in that department.
With Joe Haden failing to practice thus far this week, it is safe to assume that he may miss his fifth straight game in this weekend’s upcoming home contest against the 9-4 Tennessee Titans. Likewise, today we’ll be taking a look into Witherspoon’s play over the past two weeks, evaluating what we can expect from him for the remainder of the season, as well as looking into his potential value as a candidate to resign this offseason.
As a cornerback, it is extremely important to identify opposing receivers skill sets, and morph your coverage plan accordingly to the man across from you on a play by play basis. Witherspoon provides a great example of this below, tasked with man coverage on Baltimore’s Pat Ricard. On the rep, Witherspoon patiently operates out of a shuffle technique, maintaining outside leverage and getting hands on to re-route the fullback and eye the quarterback. In understanding the personnel across from him, Witherspoon was able to play with patience, eliminate short to intermediate routes, and dare Lamar Jackson to test him vertically.
Playing against a quarterback who will continuously extend plays in Lamar Jackson, defensive backs must remain patient in zone coverage, and be prepared to plaster receivers downfield. Operating as the flat defender in a Cover 2 zone below, Witherspoon expands to the flat before, sitting at the sticks to eliminate Jackson’s first read before identifying the extended play, man turning to plaster the receiver, and breaking in phase to contest the overthrown ball.
Witherspoon continued to show patience and aggressiveness defending the short game as the game progressed, particularly in the red zone. Operating in man coverage near the goal line below, Witherspoon once again stays patient in his shuffle technique before settling just past the sticks, keeping himself in phase to drive and contest another overthrown ball by Jackson.
Cover 3 is undeniably one of the most difficult assignments for cornerbacks to play in, as when tasked with defending the sidelines to the seams, you are often forced to bail quickly. Thus, there are few more impressive plays a cornerback can make than those contesting “access routes” when operating in Cover 3. Below, working in a deep 1/3 assignment in the red zone, Witherspoon does a great job of identifying situational keys to slow down his shuffle, read Lamar’s three step drop from shotgun, and drive the boundary access route, closing rapidly and sticking the receiver well short of the sticks.
Finally, with the Ravens needing a third and long conversion late in the game to protect their dwindling lead, Greg Roman dials up a variation of four verticals, with the outside receivers running comebacks at the sticks, a perfect call against the Steelers inverted Cover 3. Once again playing out of his deep 1/3 zone, Witherspoon eyes Lamar Jackson in his shuffle before transitioning into a crossover run, squeezing the seam, and undercutting a pass intended for Mark Andrews, forcing the Ravens to punt midway through the fourth. While an interception makes the play that much sweeter, few that haven’t played the position understand how difficult it can be to track the ball, and high point the ball when playing from a trailing position.
While lack of physicality has been a knock on Witherspoon’s game since his time at Colorado, he has shown flashes of physicality over his recent stint in Pittsburgh. Working in a Cover 1, man coverage situation on third down against the Vikings, Witherspoon aligns in off coverage, staying patient in his backpedal before triggering quickly on the five step slant and finishing at the catch point with a smooth gator roll tackle to force an early field goal attempt.
As the game progressed, Witherspoon was targeted with increased frequency, yet these attempts produced limited success for the Vikings. In the first clip below, Witherspoon, aligned in press man coverage, uses a patient motor press before flipping his hips seamlessly, getting hands on the upfield shoulder, and staying in phase to contest the slant. Later, this time in off man coverage, Witherspoon stays patient in his shuffle, weaving to match the receivers inside stem before breaking efficiently to close toward the upfield shoulder.
Later, operating in a Cover 1 man coverage assignment in the red zone, Witherspoon stays patient in his shuffle, weaving to maintain outside leverage before settling at the goal line, and driving to undercut the dig route, understanding that he has help over the top. Merely one play later, this time deploying catch man at the goal line, Witherspoon pops his feet in place forcing Justin Jefferson to break short of the goal line, and allowing Witherspoon to undercut the underthrown out route.
Later in the same series, Witherspoon once again stays patient in his shuffle, weaving to maintain his outside leverage before settling just past the end zone markers and driving to undercut a curl route intended for Justin Jefferson, securing a pass breakup in the process. Consistently over the past two games, Witherspoon has done a tremendous job of protecting his leverage, and forcing receivers toward his help in man free coverages.
Continuing to provide the team with the spark plug they desperately needed, Witherspoon was able to compile two interceptions in the second half alone, helping bring Pittsburgh back from a 29 point deficit. Operating out of a deep 1/3 zone in Cover 3, Witherspoon gains depth before following Kirk Cousins’ eyes toward a dig route, catching a tipped pass courtesy of hook/curl defender Devin Bush. Later operating in press man coverage in a Cover 1 scheme, Witherspoon once again uses a motor press, popping his feet before deploying a legal two hand jam to disrupt the receiver, undercutting the route and returning it 45 yards to set up another score.
Witherspoon’s ability to deploy a variety of different techniques in press and off man coverage allows him to keep receivers guessing, just as we saw repeatedly on Thursday night. Witherspoon finished the game with two interceptions and three pass breakups, holding Kirk Cousins to a rating of just 2.3 on targets heading in his direction, per our own Alex Kozora. Given how porous this run defense has been in stretches this season, Witherspoon and the rest of the Steelers secondary will need to continue producing splash plays if this team will have any shot at making an improbable run toward the postseason.
As I had referenced earlier, Witherspoon’s tackling has been criticized throughout his collegiate and NFL career. While he has shown flashes over the past two weeks, he remains far from consistent in the physicality department. Listed at 6’2” 190, and appearing to carry an even slighter frame than his listed weight would suggest, Witherspoon lacks the ideal frame to tackle opposing tight ends and running backs. Below, operating in Cover 3 against the Ravens, Witherspoon stays patient before triggering to the flat and lowering a shoulder into Mark Andrews, who despite the efforts, is able to slip off and rumble for a first down. While wrapping up here and aiming lower could better service Witherspoon, it’s hard to fault his effort or physicality here in tackling a physical tight end, who weighs nearly 60 pounds heavier.
Later in the game, this time working as a flat defender in Cover 2, Witherspoon sinks to protect the sticks, baiting the out route before diagnosing Lamar leaving the pocket, beating the blocker with speed to the inside, and shooting low to put a physical stick on Lamar just past the sticks. As corners are always taught to take on blocks with outside leverage, if you are going to go inside, you NEED to win. While Witherspoon takes a big risk here, it pays off, and he brings every bit of his lanky frame to cut Lamar Jackson’s legs out from underneath him.
Reps like the two above make it all the more frustrating when business decisions like the one below appear on Witherspoon’s film. While tackling is far from a cornerbacks primary role, and Witherspoon’s coverage has inarguably covered ground for his tackling woes, it is downright disrespectful to his teammates in the locker room to provide insufficient effort in the tackling department. Nonetheless, Witherspoon is arguably playing with more physicality now than at any point in his NFL career thus far, and it likely won’t get much better any time soon.
Overall, for a defense missing a lynchpin in the secondary in Joe Haden, Witherspoon has acquitted himself nicely, and is arguably playing the best football of any cornerback on the roster over the past two weeks. While James Pierre and Cam Sutton are inarguably better tacklers, both have struggled with containing the deep ball in recent weeks, largely contributing to the teams broader defensive struggles.
In a matchup against a Titans receiving core that will be missing their top weapon in A.J. Brown, Witherspoon and the Steelers secondary will need to rise to the occasion and produce splash plays against an opposing quarterback in Ryan Tannehill who has tossed 13 picks thus far. Given that the Titans are currently the 5th most productive rushing attack in the NFL, the secondary will need to produce splash plays and help the team get off the field on third downs when the opportunity presents itself.
Entering the offseason, while far from a flashy option, retaining Witherspoon could allow the team to move on from long standing veteran Joe Haden, who will turn 33 this offseason and has dealt with injuries throughout his productive career in Pittsburgh. Regardless, it is encouraging that the Steelers are finally getting production out of a player they traded a 2023 fifth round pick for, and one can only imagine where this defense would be right now if not for the recent play of Ahkello Witherspoon.