We’re three games into the 2022 season and CB Ahkello Witherspoon is off to a rough start. He struggled against the Bengals and Patriots heading into Thursday night’s matchup with the Cleveland Browns, where he would be tasked with covering a talented technician in Amari Cooper. I highlighted the matchup as a key battle to watch, suggesting Cooper’s nuanced route running and quickness in and out of his breaks could present problems for Witherspoon if tasked with covering him in man. Those fears came to reality as Cooper cooked Witherspoon and the rest of the Pittsburgh secondary, routinely getting open and making Cleveland a well-rounded offense that consistently picked up yards and first downs to beat Pittsburgh.
Through three weeks, Witherspoon has been given a 51.5 overall grade by Pro Football Focus and has been charted with allowing 15 receptions on 21 targets (71.4%) for 175 yards and two TDs while recording one INT according to Pro Football Reference. While not considered a top-tier cover cornerback in the league, Witherspoon was widely believed to by Pittsburgh’s CB1 in 2022, being tasked with covering the opposing team’s best WR thanks to his length, speed, and athleticism to challenge at the catch point.
There is plenty of season for Witherspoon to get things figured out, but should he continue to struggle when matched up with the opposing team’s top WR, Pittsburgh should look to give Levi Wallace a shot at that responsibility. Wallace has been far steadier in three games than his teammate, allowing nine receptions on 14 targets (64.3%) for 110 yards with no TDs or INTs on 118 defensive snaps. Wallace currently boasts a 63.9 overall grade at PFF and has been making plays in zone coverage as well as representing himself well when tasked to go man-to-man.
To be fair to Witherspoon, he’s played 100 more defensive snaps that Wallace, logging the start in three straight contests. He also is the superior athlete in terms of running in-stride with WRs down the field and has the ball skills to make plays on the football.
Still, Wallace is consistent and plays with great effort on every snap, whether it be in coverage or having to come downhill and get dirty in the run game. He plays with good instincts and breaks on the ball quicker than Witherspoon on short and intermediate routes as well as brings a more consistent tackling presence to the table. He also has the spatial awareness to contest passes that appear to be caught, like this would-be TD pass to Ja’Marr Chase, forcing him out of bounds.
The Steelers likely will stick with Witherspoon covering the opposing team’s #1 WR given his measurables and ability to best matchup with them, but Wallace may need to start getting some run in that role if Witherspoon can’t get back on track. Wallace may be a noticeable downgrade, but at a position like CB where you need consistency to win the day, Wallace may be able to bring that as a CB2 who won’t make the flashy plays, but also may provide a more stable floor.
What are your thoughts on Pittsburgh’s CB situation? Do you think that Wallace should get some consideration over Witherspoon, or that the Steelers should continue with Witherspoon as the team’s #1 cover man? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!