The Pittsburgh Steelers secondary is heading in a bit of a new direction this offseason, its first year in half a decade without Joe Haden as their number one cornerback. I don’t know that they know right now who is the ‘number one’, or if there is one, but sixth-year veteran Ahkello Witherspoon is hoping to stake his claim to that distinction—after all, he thinks he’s a top-five cornerback in the game.
Last week, he hopped onto the Getcha Popcorn podcast, during which he had nearly an hour-long discussion with Hall of Fame wide receiver Terrell Owens about himself, the Steelers, and the nature of the game. We have already highlighted a number of topics from that podcast, but another one stood out when he talked about shifting his focus and learning from other top cornerbacks in the game.
“I was always just a press-man corner and just, pass break-ups. By the time you look, that thing is already on you”, he said, referring of course to the football. “I think really just realizing that you can catch every football that’s thrown your way, or having that mindset, even at the sake of not touching it at all, maybe”.
At the time, he was talking about Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard, who he listed among his top five cornerbacks, and what sort of elements of Howard’s game he was trying to adapt into his own. Seizing that ‘my ball’ mentality was his main takeaway from formerly the highest-paid cornerback in the game—and he did post a career-high in interceptions last year in about a third of a season’s worth of playing time.
“It’s just getting out of that press-man world. It’s very robotic, and you have to have your eyes on the man because you don’t know where he’s about to go next”, Witherspoon said. “That’s what I’ve done for so long”.
“But catching footballs is a little savvy in it, too”, he added. “It’s a little bit of getting out of technique, it’s getting away from your foundation, and that’s what I’m seeing, is one of those times where you can just become a baller and just make a play just because of something you felt, where it doesn’t have to be as robotic”.
The Steelers have increasingly stressed playmaking in recent years, particularly on defense, with Teryl Austin bringing in a number of different drills and getting the defensive backs regularly working on the JUGGs machines.
There may be a perception of rigidity in their structure, but it’s actually quite flexible, allowing players to go and make plays when they’re available. Of course, if you try it too often and lose, then you’re going to get yourself benched.