It’s not how you start, but how you finish. Especially in the public eye. If first impressions were everything, then Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon would have been run out of town from nearly his first snap in the black and gold. And it wasn’t even his fault.
During a conversation with Terrell Owens on the Getcha Popcorn podcast, Witherspoon was the guest for a nearly hour-long session. Late in the proceedings, the conversation turned to players who gave him trouble, and he talked about Keenan Allen of the Los Angeles Chargers, but when asked, he said, “I ain’t been killed yet. Check the tape”.
Talking to a Hall of Fame wide receiver, Owens was naturally skeptical of a cornerback’s standards for what qualifies as getting killed, so he elaborated—and it eventually got back to week two of last season and a 61-yard Henry Ruggs touchdown for the Las Vegas Raiders.
“I think the most grabs I’ve given up in a game is like, six, and that was from like, 90 yards. I might have given up a big play, like, on some BS, like Christian Kirk, when my middle-field safety’s not there”, he said. “Or even last year, my middle-field safety iced me out in my first game with the Steelers. Henry Ruggs went bomb on me for like 60 yards to end the game. And I was just like, ‘What are we doing?’”.
That middle-field safety would be Minkah Fitzpatrick, and make no mistake, we talked about this play way back in September when it happened. It looked bad for Witherspoon on first blush, but it was clear that Raiders quarterback Derek Carr got Fitzpatrick to bite and made him late to his spot, leading to the 61-yard dagger.
That made it 23-14, a two-possession game, with under 10 minutes to play. Not insurmountable, but it felt that way the way that game was going. The two teams only traded field goals before the clock hit 0:00. And Witherspoon wouldn’t play again until week 10—though not because the coaches didn’t understand what happened.
“He went bomb on me, and it looks like it’s on your boy, but where’s my middle-field safety at?”, the cornerback told Owens. “I’ve been a part of that. There’s gonna be some 100s out there, but you can watch the tape. We can go play-for-play”.
Granted, you’re not going to find too many opportunities for a cornerback to admit that he was truly beaten on a play without finding some kind of excuse to explain exactly what happened and why it wouldn’t happen under normal circumstances. But certainly, your safety help not being in place can’t be helped. “I’m like, ‘Man, this can’t be happening’”, he said.
The Steelers traded for Witherspoon just weeks prior, and he was set to be a healthy scratch, even though he was an experienced starter. Mid-season injuries and James Pierre’s struggles opened the door for him, however, and that led to some of the best play of his career and a new contract this offseason that has him poised to re-enter the starting lineup.