The Pittsburgh Steelers fielded perhaps more players on defense this season than they ever have in their history, and that came about due to a variety of reasons—not simply due to injury or even due to complications with COVID-19 protocols. The secondary in particular caused them to employ a number of different personnel and packages.
They ultimately played 11 different defensive backs, from Joe Haden, Cameron Sutton, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Terrell Edmunds, to James Pierre, Arthur Maulet, Tre Norwood, and Ahkello Witherspoon, to Miles Killebrew, Justin Layne, and Karl Joseph. Witherspoon was among the latest additions but played the largest role behind the starters.
Acquired via trade just before the regular season got underway, the fifth-year veteran and former starter spent half the season riding the bench, but due to midseason injury and performance issues, he started to get regular playing time, continuing the carousel of personnel packages employed as the defense tried to figure out which alignments worked best. But Witherspoon told reporters this week that wasn’t a problem for him, nor did he see it as a weakness.
“We have a combination of talented players that have multiple skillsets, and as well as myself coming in and adding a body to that picture, I think part of that is just accommodating for the amount of bodies that we have in the room”, he said when asked to explain why they used so many different combinations.
Following an offseason in which they lost two starters in the secondary in outside cornerback Steven Nelson and slot defender Mike Hilton, the Steelers began the season in particular trying out many different combinations, which even featured Fitzpatrick coming down into the slot. Sutton and Norwood would also move around to different positions a lot.
Pierre started out logging a lot of time on the outside, and spot starting when necessary, but that role eventually went to Witherspoon after the second-year player struggled. Maulet spent a good portion of the season as the primary nickel defender, but that role varied considerably, in no small part due to Sutton’s versatility.
“I think it specialized us as a group at time”, Witherspoon said of the mixing and matching looks. “In terms of moving forward, I just think it’s good to have as many weapons on a team in a defensive backfield that can play different areas. It was fun to be a part of”.
He himself, of course, was not one of those moving pieces. Witherspoon is exclusively an outside cornerback, but with Sutton, Norwood, and Maulet able to play inside, they were able to accommodate him and get him on to the field a lot once he started getting regular playing time.