Taking off down the stretch in the 2021 season after being inserted into the starting lineup due to injuries, Pittsburgh Steelers’ cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon played like a true shutdown No. 1 cornerback for the Steelers’ defense.
Witherspoon led the Steelers in interceptions with three, held a number of top receivers to well-below season averages like Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson and Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill, parlaying a great close to the season into a two-year, $8 million deal in free agency from the Steelers, sliding himself back into the top cornerback slot under new defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.
Based off of his play down the stretch, and the outlook moving forward in the Steel City, Witherspoon is Bleacher Report’s choice for the Steelers’ top breakout player for the 2022 season, which would be a huge boost for a Steelers’ defense looking to get back on track after a tough 2021 season.
“One reason the Pittsburgh Steelers slipped from their AFC North throne in 2020 to second place in 2021 was the decrease in interceptions,” Bleacher Report’s Ian Wharton writes. “They ranked first with 18 interceptions as they sprinted to a 12-4 finish, but the playmaking dropped off last season. They finished 15th in the league with 13 picks.
“Witherspoon started only three games and played in nine total last year but racked up three interceptions in his short time. He re-signed on a two-year deal and should compete for a starting job alongside Levi Wallace and Cam Sutton. But what makes Witherspoon different are his spurts of ball production.”
Once Witherspoon stepped into the lineup, his play helped take away half the field in the passing game, which really helped the Steelers’ patchwork defense compete — for the most part — down the stretch.
With his long arms and impressive overall physical traits, Witherspoon profiles nicely as the new-age shutdown cornerback in the NFL that is able to compete with the big-bodied receivers in the air, while still having the speed and athleticism to stick with some of the quick-twitch receivers overall.
Of course, there’s some concern about projecting Witherspoon moving forward, especially after seeing such a high level of play in a very small sample size. There’s a reason he’s on his third team in five seasons, but the Steelers seemingly found something with the veteran cornerback. We’ll see if he can keep up his level of play in 2022.
If he can, the Steelers’ defense should be right back in the discussion for one of the best units in all of football.