PITTSBURGH — The Steelers added Ahkello Witherspoon to their secondary for a reason. Take a guy from two heavy Cover 3 schemes in Robert Saleh and Pete Carroll’s schemes, and insert him into a Mike Tomlin one. That sounds like a tough juxtaposition when Witherspoon’s limited experience has come in similar, albeit vastly different technical schemes.
Here is the thing with the Steelers. They run far more single-high and Cover 2 than anything in their scheme. Of course, Cover 3 is their true base out of nickel. However, that was still only the third most run coverage by the Steelers throughout the 2020 season. Then, mixing in some Tampa 2, quarter-quarter-half, and quarters coverage into the back end of the defense also has to be accounted for at its heart.
So, Witherspoon is coming to an extremely diverse defense that runs what it wants, but with how much blitzing Keith Butler and Tomlin do defensively, more often than not, they really do run a lot of pure man coverage. That means coverage is even more important if the pass rush does not get home, and it leaves those cornerbacks vulnerable with often only one source of help in the middle of the field. Granted, that resource is Minkah Fitzpatrick, but the cornerbacks are often vying for themselves.
The big difference between Pittsburgh and especially Seattle is the type of techniques they use. For one, Seattle employs a very active strategy of hand usage and outside read press technique. That means as a cornerback, they have to be especially active with their hand usage and use their hands to help their feet mirror what their eyes are seeing off the line.
The Seahawks did not use off-man coverage a ton. They often emphasize length at the line of scrimmage and physicality to control the catch point. However, Witherspoon’s weakness is his hands. He could never find stability as a result of bad hands in press.
That is because Witherspoon is more comfortable using his eyes and hips to read receivers’ routes and stems. As shown on this play, Witherspoon does a great job of playing this Cover 3 scheme. He executes a fantastic hip turn, cuts off any route to the ball the receiver may have, and reads the route through his eyes and the receiver’s hips. Witherspoon is 6-foot-3, but has absurd change of direction for his size. Thus, when he’s at his best, he’s using his eyes and hips to aid him on any given play. Just as he did above, the Steelers employ that strategy to a tee. It is exactly why Joe Haden has extended his career so long in Pittsburgh. A cerebral nature and fluid hips go a long way in Pittsburgh.
Now, what might not fly in Pittsburgh is Witherspoon’s run support ability. It has never been a matter of willingness in that area for him. As shown above, Witherspoon is plenty willing and capable to get physical in run support. However, he is often an ankle hugger and inconsistent tackler. In addition, he struggles to shed blocks even with his length. The Steelers may not love that Witherspoon lacks the physicality that someone like James Pierre has shown.
Even with that in mind, however, Witherspoon’s skillset gives him an opportunity to flourish in Pittsburgh. He will have to find technical consistency to truly move the needle, but at the very least, the Steelers should feel more comfortable with their depth.