Steelers CB Ahkello Witherspoon has been grossly underrated since 2020

Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (25). Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon (25). Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Steelers might have found a gem in Ahkello Witherspoon. Here’s why the veteran cornerback has been better than you think. 

One of the biggest things I wanted the Pittsburgh Steelers to get done during the 2022 offseason was to re-sign veteran cornerback, Ahkello Witherspoon. To many fans, this probably didn’t seem like a very big deal.

Witherspoon started just 3 games for the Steelers last season and was inactive for 8 of the first 9 games. However, when you really examine his film, you’ll see why giving him a contract extension was such a necessary move.

Witherspoon’s debut with Pittsburgh didn’t exactly start off with a bang. After being traded to the Steelers on September 3rd (just a week before the season kicked off), Witherspoon saw his first action in Week 2 against the Las Vegas Raiders.

Unfortunately, things did not go well. On just 4 defensive snaps, Witherspoon allowed a 61-yard touchdown in his coverage to WR Henry Ruggs. From there, Witherspoon was pulled from the game and wouldn’t see the field again until Week 11.

Despite this lengthy absence of inactivity, Ahkello Witherspoon redeemed himself with a remarkable showing down the stretch. The veteran cornerback not only proved to know what he was doing out there, but he quickly became Pittsburgh’s best cornerback.

Over the final 9 games of the season (including the playoffs), Witherspoon was spectacular. He earned 3 interceptions while allowing just 172 yards, according to advanced stats from Pro Football Reference. He also allowed just 14 of 36 passes to be completed in his direction over this span.

Quitely, Witherspoon has strung together two very impressive seasons dating back to his time with the 49ers in 2020. Here’s a look at his statistics during that span, via PFR and Pro Football Reference:

These numbers speak for themselves. What really jumps off the page is the fact that he has allowed just 5.9 yards per target in his direction over the past two seasons. To put this into perspective, Jalen Ramsey allowed 6.4 yards per target last season, while All-Pro cornerback Trevon Diggs surrendered 8.8 yards per target.

It’s also remarkable that Witherspoon allowed just a 35.1 passer rating last season. This was despite giving up the 61-yard touchdown catch in his first action back in Week 2. Witherspoon also ranked 6th and 13th over the past two seasons, respectively, among all NFL cornerbacks, via Pro Football Focus grades.

Why Steelers needed Witherspoon back

It was clear to see that Joe Haden just didn’t have anything left in the tank. By the end of the 2021 season, he was the one who was routinely picked on and he allowed a perfect passer rating in two games against the Chiefs late in the year — including the playoff loss.

Haden was also set to hit the free-agent market, but overpaying for an old cornerback who wasn’t playing well was something I really didn’t want the Steelers to do. As it stands, the veteran cornerback is still looking for a home.

Meanwhile, I really didn’t trust the rest of the talent on Pittsburgh’s roster. Cameron Sutton has proven to be a capable sub-package cornerback, but he struggled when asked to start and cover players outside the hashes last year.

Even more concerning is how poor some of the younger players like Justin Layne and James Pierre looked in 2021. After showing at least some promise, they both disappointed, and neither looks like a viable option to play on the outside.

The Steelers were able to add a solid, yet unspectacular player in Levi Wallace this offseason, but he’s best as a low-end CB2 or high-end CB3. To be quite honest, I still think Pittsburgh should look to add another starting-caliber cornerback to this unit.

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Fortunately, retaining Witherspoon was a very necessary step. There’s no guarantee that he continues to play at this remarkable level now that he will be in a full-time role, but I fully expect him to be the best cornerback on the team in 2022. He has been grossly underrated over the past two years.