When the Pittsburgh Steelers square off against the Cleveland Browns tonight, all eyes will be on the opposing run game spearheaded by the dynamic duo in the backfield with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Both backs are arguably top 12 talents at the position in the league and when coupled with the dudes they have upfront on the offensive line, Cleveland desires to play bully ball and bludgeon opposing defenses on the ground early and often.
However, one key matchup to watch in Cleveland this Thursday pertains to a battle in the passing game between Browns WR Amari Cooper and CB Ahkello Witherspoon. Cooper got off to a slow start Week 1 against the Panthers, but rebounded last week against the Jets, posting nine receptions on ten targets for 101 yards and a score.
Cooper has been a productive receiver since entering the league back in 2015, going over the 1,000-yard mark five times. While he may not be seen as one of the premier players at his position, he has always been very effective thanks to his speed, quickness, and strength at the catch point. He has the acceleration to challenge defenses vertically down the field as well as the route running prowess to get separation at the top of his route, getting the best of bigger corners that are slower to trigger on the pass.
Last week against #1 Sauce Gardner of the Jets, Cooper showcased his nuanced route running and body control, getting away from the sticky coverage of the talented rookie defender on multiple occasions he would break back to the ball suddenly, giving QB Jacoby Brissett an open target to throw to as Cleveland’s offense would work its way down the field.
Ahkello Witherspoon has struggled thus far two games into 2022. In two appearances, Witherspoon has been targeted 16 times and has allowed 12 receptions (75.0%) for 123 yards and two TDs with one INT, allowing a 110.2 passer rating when targeted according to Pro Football Reference. When watching Witherspoon’s tape, one thing that sticks out is the separation he allows in close quarters to opposing WRs. Being a longer, bigger-bodied CB, Witherspoon doesn’t have that same quick twitch as those shorter, feisty defensive backs that often man the slot. This can lead to receivers generating separation early at the top of their routes and Witherspoon being a step behind in coverage.
Normally, Witherspoon has benefitted down the field against larger receivers thanks to his long speed and gangly frame. However, this past week was a humbling experience for him as he got Mossed by Nelson Agholor for a deep ball TD. Witherspoon has gotten beat deep in the past, but this more of a stronger part of his game and given the fact that Brissett’s longest completion thus far in 2022 is only 30 yards, suggesting that Pittsburgh and more specifically Witherspoon should likely key in on Cooper in the short and intermediate areas of the field if he has safety help overtop.
Cooper is definitely Cleveland’s most viable passing game threat followed by David Njoku and Donovan Peoples-Jones. While Witherspoon should see plenty of Cooper in man-to-man coverage, Pittsburgh would be wise to sprinkle in various zone concepts where Witherspoon would have help overtop and allow him to get aggressive at playing the football. He had success last season when able to jump the route against the Vikings and the Browns, and we saw that in the regular season opener against the Bengals when Witherspoon sat underneath in zone coverage and jumped the pass intended for Tyler Boyd for the INT.
Pittsburgh’s #1 priority on defense needs to be slowing down Chubb and Hunt in the running game if they hope to come out of Thursday night’s matchup with the win, but Witherspoon’s performance against Amari Cooper is another key matchup that could prove vital for either team’s success. Should Witherspoon prevent Cooper from getting separation early on in his routes and not allow Cooper to get pasted him downfield, Witherspoon will be in good position to rebound after last week’s performance and get back on-track where he left off at the end of 2021.