In their anticipated Week 17 home matchup against the division rival Cleveland Browns, the Steelers defense pitched one of their best performances of the 2021 season in a 26-14 victory. In total, the team held the Browns under 100 yards rushing, along with allowing just 30% conversion on possession downs, and harassing Baker Mayfield to the tune of 9 sacks, helping hold the quarterback to a stat line of 185 yards, three yards per attempt, and a completion percentage just above 40% to go along with two interceptions. Their improved defensive performance, working in tandem with a vastly improved rushing attack, helped the team out-posses the Browns by roughly 10 minutes in time of possession, their first time winning said stat in six games.
The first of the two Browns turnovers, a crucial interception which flipped the field and gave the Steelers a chance to build on their lead before the half, came courtesy of Ahkello Witherspoon, who would add a game leading 3 pass breakups on the night. Since his insertion into the lineup in Week 13 vs Baltimore, Witherspoon has played with noticeable confidence, collecting 11 tackles, eight pass breakups, and a team leading three picks over his impressive five week stretch.
Likewise, Witherspoon’s confidence has jumped off the tape in recent weeks, allowing him to blanket receivers and take calculated risks within the scheme. While tackling and overall physicality remain inconsistent, the effort in that department has been vastly improved in recent weeks. Against Cleveland, Witherspoon played his best game to date in Pittsburgh, thriving in a game plan that featured a steady diet of man coverage, allowing the lengthy corner to showcase his skills in both press and off coverage assignments, as well as his presence in zone coverage. Today, we’ll be taking a deeper dive into Witherspoon’s performance from Monday Night’s emotional game at Heinz Field, one which is all but certain to have been future Hall of Fame quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s last.
Monday Night against Cleveland, the Steelers defense posted one of it’s best performances of the season, at times resembling the dominant units from 2019 and 2020 with their reliance on man coverage, which allowed the four man rush to get home all night. Witherspoon in particular did a great job of mixing up his alignments in man coverage, staying patient and playing the catch point with confidence throughout the night.
Primarily operating out of Cover 1 man looks, Witherspoon did a tremendous job all night of protecting his outside leverage, and forcing receivers towards his help in the middle of the field. On the rep below, Witherspoon aligns with outside leverage before kick sliding to match the inside release, using a two hand jam to force the receiver off his path, locating the hip, and forcing the receiver toward Minkah Fitzpatrick on the deep corner route. While it’s not a play that jumps off the tape, Witherspoon’s commitment to protecting his leverage and physicality off the line forces the receiver well off of his path, effectively taking him out of the play.
Witherspoon’s natural tools, namely an 80 inch wingspan, 4.45 40 time, and 40.5 inch vert, make it easy for him to play with confidence and compete on short and intermediate routes. Working in man coverage on Donovan Peoples Jones, the Browns motion the talented receiver into a tightened split to prevent Witherspoon from using his length off the line.
As a counter, Witherspoon chooses to operate out of catch man, working laterally to match the receivers release at six yards depth. At the top of the route, Witherspoon does a nice job of getting hands on to widen the receivers break, before tracking the back hip and undercutting the pass to secure a crucial first half interception, his third in the past four games.
In today’s NFL, cornerbacks must be able to operate out of a variety of alignments in man coverage to keep receivers and quarterbacks off balance. Aligned in off man coverage in a Cover 1 scheme below, Witherspoon is able to key the receivers notably wide alignment beyond the numbers, giving him every indication that he will run an in breaking route.
Thus, at the snap, Witherspoon hops into a patient shuffle with inside leverage, staying in phase before flying out of his break to close on the curl route and bat the ball away with left hand. Needless to say, Witherspoon’s enormous wingspan is on display here.
Situational awareness, including coverage, down and distance, receiver alignment, and area of the field can help corners put themselves in positions to flourish. Although outside leverage often best in Cover 1 schemes, Witherspoon keys the receivers alignment, wide of the numbers, and opts to deploy inside leverage, understanding that the receiver has limited space to work along the sideline.
At the snap, Witherspoon kick slides laterally before disrupting the receiver with a smooth two hand jam, locating the hip and squeezing toward the sideline, before sinking his hips in unison with the receiver to shutdown the comeback route. Witherspoon wasn’t targeted on this play, and for good reason, he didn’t allow even a yard of separation at any point during the route, simply textbook coverage on a comeback route.
Throughout the tape, Witherspoon’s confidence is evident in his lack of hesitation and trust in his breaks. Working in man coverage in a Cover 1 scheme below, Witherspoon once again keys the receivers wide alignment, aligning in off man coverage with heavy inside leverage at seven yards depth.
At the snap, Witherspoon gives no ground in his side shuffle, flying out of his T-step break to blanket the three step slant. Note how Witherspoon breaks before the receiver is even out of his break, a testament to his eye discipline.
As I’ve repeated over the past few weeks, Witherspoon simply lacks the frame to be elite in the tackling department. Thus, his effort in that facet of his game is the primary thing that I have been monitoring in his recent film.
Although Witherspoon ultimately finished with 0 tackles on the game due to a holding penalty which nullified this nice stop, I found myself impressed by both his effort and execution on this rep. At the snap, Witherspoon immediately identifies the crack and replace situation, flowing left with the run before knifing past Jarvis Landry and diving low to secure a stop on the cutback run. Once again, far from a flashy play, but Witherspoon’s effort and execution to shut down this cutback prevented what ultimately could have been an explosive run if not properly fitted from the corner spot, see Artie Burns against Chicago a few years back.
While Witherspoon’s shuffle technique and catch man work are his two primary tools in off man coverage, he also occasionally works well out of a traditional backpedal as well, which speaks to his growing versatility. Below, working in off man coverage in a Cover 1 scheme, Witherspoon aligns at seven yard depth head up on the receiver.
At the snap, Witherspoon works into a backpedal, staying square and keeping his hips in line with the receiver before breaking efficiently to blanket the receiver toward the sideline as the overthrown ball sails out of bounds. Once again, his eye discipline and trust in his break are evident on this rep.
While the Steelers stayed in Cover 1 man for a vast majority of the game, they sprinkled in some zone, primarily Cover 3, Cover 2 Invert, and a traditional Cover 2. Since his insertion into the lineup in Week 13, one of the best facets of Witherspoon’s game has been his ability to stay patient and compete on shallow and intermediate route combinations when manning the deep ⅓ in Cover 3, an assignment where many corners bail out far too quickly.
On the rep below, working out of Cover 3, Witherspoon opens into a crossover run and gains depth before settling at 15 yards depth, keying Baker Mayfield’s release, and breaking quickly, finishing with violence at the catch point to separate the receiver from the ball and collect his third pass breakup of the day. Once again, note that on this curl/slide combination to the boundary, Witherspoon is not threatened vertically, thus, once he settles at his proper depth, he keeps himself in phase to contest the intermediate route. This is a rep that shows sensational presence in zone coverage from Witherspoon, another facet of his improving versatile game.
Ultimately, Witherspoon, with his ability to challenge receivers at the catch point and generate much needed takeaways for a Steelers defense which has shown some improvement since his permanent insertion into the lineup in Week 13. The Steelers have gone 3-2 in that stretch, holding opponents to 15.3 points per game in their three home wins over Baltimore, Tennessee, and Cleveland, sending Big Ben out 3-0 in his final three home games.
At this juncture, It’s still tough to gauge what Witherspoon’s market value will be this offseason. Regardless, he’s undeniably been the Steelers best corner, and moreover, one of the best corners across the league over this latest five game stretch, and alongside Minkah Fitzpatrick, could potentially serve as a long term guy to build around in the secondary.
While Cam Sutton struggled to contain speedy receivers vertically at times this season, he has largely been a serviceable starter with added value in his sub package versatility. Thus, if the team is able to retain Witherspoon, which should certainly be a top priority, they would enter free agency and the draft with two or their three starters in the Nickel package. Regardless of what lies ahead in the offseason, it is clear that Witherspoon is a good scheme fit in Pittsburgh and is currently playing the best football of his five year career, proving to be well worth the fifth round pick he was exchanged for, courtesy of the great Kevin Colbert.