Who was the best defensive back for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021?

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerbacks Joe Haden (23) and Ahkello Witherspoon (25).
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerbacks Joe Haden (23) and Ahkello Witherspoon (25). /

The Pittsburgh Steelers had some interesting performances in the secondary. Who was their best overall defensive back in 2021? 

Pittsburgh’s secondary wasn’t perfect in 2021, but on a list of all their biggest issues this season, it hardly ranks near the top. Surprisingly, the run defense was the worst in the NFL this year, in terms of both rushing yards per game and yards per attempt.

While the run defense should improve in 2022 with the pending return of Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, the pass defense could use some upgrades. However, not everyone in their secondary had a mediocre season.

The Steelers really struggled to create takeaways this year — something they have been able to do so easily in the past. Unfortunately, consistency in coverage was also an issue for most of their secondary.

Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton each took a noticeable step back this year, while James Pierre proved to be all hype and no results. However, there were three players I thought had very good years in 2021: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, and Ahkello Witherspoon. Here’s a look at the passer ratings surrendered by the top members of their secondary, according to advanced stats from Pro Football Reference:

There’s so much more that goes into making a good defensive back than passer rating allowed. This is somewhat of a subjective stat, as it’s not always easy to determine which defensive back was responsible for which assignment. Though I never would have guessed it at the beginning of the year, I think Ahkello Witherspoon was the best defensive back on the season in 2021.

Ahkello Witherspoon was the best player in Steelers secondary

This is no knock on Pittsburgh’s starting safeties. I thought Terrell Edmunds easily had the best year of his NFL career in 2021. He was a very reliable tackler who was pretty consistent in coverage and offered more splash plays than he did in the past.

Likewise, I thought Minkah Fitzpatrick had another excellent year for the Steelers. His tackling clearly improved as he was often the last line of defense, and he made some terrific pass breakups in huge moments of the game. While he only recorded 2 interceptions this season and didn’t grade out as well, according to Pro Football Focus, he was still one the best overall players on the team.

Despite this solid safety duo, I really think Ahkello Witherspoon was the best player overall. Witherspoon didn’t log nearly as many snaps this season as some of the other players in the secondary. The cornerback was traded from the Seahawks for a fifth-round pick early in the year and rarely earned a helmet until Week 11.

However, from Week 12 through the end of the season, only T.J. Watt was a better player for this football team, in my opinion. Witherspoon showcased sticky coverage as he typically limited the opposing team’s top receiver. On the season, he allowed just 14 of 37 receptions to be completed in his coverage (37.8 percent) while earning 3 interceptions and 9 pass defenses.

All of this equated to allowing just a 35.1 passer rating on the season — one of the best in the NFL. Because of his dominance when he was on the field, it wasn’t all that surprising to see him grade out as the 16th-best cornerback in football this year, according to PFF. Witherspoon was graded as the 6th-best cornerback in football in 2020, so this is his second appearance in the top-20.

Trending. Steelers positional grades are mostly disappointing for the 2021 season. light

At 6’3” and 198 pounds, Witherspoon has incredible size and terrific athletic traits. Still just 26 years old, the Pittsburgh Steelers seriously need to consider locking him up to a long-term extension in 2022.