Coming on the podcast Getcha Popcorn Ready with T.O. and Hatch as a guest, Pittsburgh Steelers CB Ahkello Witherspoon was asked by former NFL WRs Terrell Owens and Matthew Hatchette about several topics including his time in San Francisco, CBs he likes to model his game after, and the top five receivers he has had to cover in the league.
After spending time talking about his earlier day with the 49ers and advice he gained from Richard Sherman, Terrell Owens brings up the topic of Mike Tomlin and what it’s like to be coached by a man like him.
“He’s a cool dude,” Witherspoon responded to Owens when asked about Tomlin. “He’s definitely a player’s coach. Very relatable. Very ground level. He’s not trying to big-time it or be above anyone.”
Tomlin has often been called a “player’s coach” by members of the media, the players themselves, and by several of us here at Steelers Depot. Thus, it seems likely that part of the draw for Witherspoon to return back to Pittsburgh on a two-year deal this offseason had to do with the influence Coach Tomlin made on him during his short time with the Steelers after being acquired from the Seattle Seahawks via trade.
“He’s just a good ambassador for the game and I think he goes about coaching the game the right way.”
Later in the podcast, which is shown on video via Fubo Sports Network on YouTube, Hatchette asked Witherspoon about his experience in Pittsburgh thus far, and specifically the locker room he shares with his current teammates.
“I think it all comes from our head coach and how he facilities that work environment,” Witherspoon continued. “He’s big on just family, brotherhood, fellowship, and spending time with each other. It’s not just about showing up to practice. It’s about putting that extra time in to get to know your brother.”
Again, Witherspoon ties back the influence of Tomlin to the locker room as a whole and the culture that has been created during his time as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are often considered one of the closest organizations in the National Football League, where everyone treats each other like family, whether it be the players, coaches, front office executives, or support staff. This family atmosphere encourages players to get to know each other, spend time with each other outside of the building, and foster relationships that transcend football like Witherspoon refers to.
While a family can enjoy the good times together, they also must be able to hash out their differences and settle any conflicts that may arise. The same can be said for a football team that needs to have eleven guys all on the same page to properly execute their assignments on a down-to-down basis to have the best chance at victory. Witherspoon has recognized these aspects as well during his short time in Pittsburgh and believes that the team has that firm foundation to be able to work through the struggles that may come up this season.
“It’s just something that we pride ourselves on and just being honest with one another and going about it like a family would,” said Witherspoon. “That’s sometimes having those uncomfortable conversations, but that’s the type of stuff that you grow from and you build that security with your brother with.”
It isn’t just the coaches’ responsibility to critique and help the players on the field, but rather the players much each hold each other accountable. The Steelers have experienced both ends of the spectrum, having moments where the defense is firing on all cylinders as a cohesive unit like back in 2008 when they won the Super Bowl, but also having moments of frustration like back in the early 2010’s when the team struggled with “communication” on the back end, leading to numerous busts in coverage.
While you may love your brothers on the football field like Witherspoon said, you still need to be able to call them out and have difficult conversations if someone isn’t doing their job for the better of the team. As Witherspoon references after that, those difficult conversations with your teammates help build that sense of security and trust with one another, allowing you to withstand adversity due to your belief in your teammates who you view as “brothers”.
Coach Tomlin obviously abides by this philosophy that he has instilled in his players, often going to the phrase “smile in the face of adversity”. To be fair, that is exactly what Tomlin’s teams have done since he took the helm. Tomlin has never had a losing season as the head coach for the Steelers, often elevating the play of his teams despite the circumstances, like back in 2019 when Ben Roethlisberger was lost for the season or this past season where Pittsburgh started 1-3 and managed to make it into the playoffs with a roster ravaged with injury and a QB on his last legs.
Ahkello Witherspoon may not have been in Pittsburgh long, but the influence of Mike Tomlin and the locker room has visibly left a profound impact on him, prompting him to return. He will be heavily counted on this season as the projected CB1 for Pittsburgh, but given the faith he has in his head coach and his teammates, it’s safe to say the Witherspoon is up to the task of representing the Black and Gold the best he can in 2022.