The Steelers signed cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon to a two-year contract on Friday, a little over a week into the start of free agency.
Witherspoon said the team was interested in bringing him back from the get-go, but he knew it was in his best interest to test the waters and see what was out there before making a decision.
"They were interested in me at the beginning of free agency, but it was just appropriate for me to test the waters outside," said Witherspoon on Monday afternoon. "It's just business and they were very respectful of that, encouraging of that nature of business. It was encouraging to go through that process and there be an offer on the table and come back and solidify and be in a place that I'm happy, in a place that I'm excited to play football."
Coming back to the Steelers, who acquired him via a trade with the Seattle Seahawks in 2021, was the right move for him in the end.
"They give me a great opportunity to take my game where I want to go," said Witherspoon. "I enjoy playing with my brothers. Enjoy the City of Pittsburgh. And on top of being coached by such a great head coach in Mike Tomlin, it just made the decision pretty easy."
It took Witherspoon some time to get on the field when he arrived in Pittsburgh last year as Tomlin said he got on a 'moving train.' Once he got on the field, which happened due to an injury to Joe Haden, he made his presence felt. He finished the year with 15 tackles, including one for a loss, three interceptions, including one for a 41-yard return, and nine passes defensed.
"I think the injury to Joe Haden kind of opened up the door," said Witherspoon. "That was kind of where my where my spot was. Throughout the entirety of the beginning of the season, I spoke with Mike Tomlin, and he was very honest about where we stood and what it was going to take for me to get on the field. That happened. And then it was just up to me to take advantage of the opportunity."
For a guy who was accustomed to seeing playing time, biding his time was tough. But he never faltered.
"I think just separating from expectations," said Witherspoon. "I think that's the biggest thing in this league. The most important opportunity is the next one. If you spend time thinking about, or worrying about what that's going to be, you're wasting valuable minutes on preparing and being ready for that moment. And that's all I did was really just sit back, trusted the people that were in front of me, the leaders that were ahead of me, Mike Tomlin, and I just listened and took it in stride. When that opportunity came, I was prepared because I wasn't taking myself through that mental jungle gym for no reason. I was just very even keeled and ready to take advantage of the opportunity."
Witherspoon will work with a mix at cornerback that includes newly signed free agent Levi Wallace. He said when he heard the news of Wallace being signed, he was excited and loves the competition it creates.
"My reaction was just excited that our team got better," said Witherspoon. "I've watched him play a few times and I've always liked his length and his combination of size and speed and just his feel for the game. But for me, it's just about making the team better. Pushing myself, pushing him, pushing each other and I think when you have high caliber guys in one building, you're going to make your team better and make your players better. And that's what I'm here for."
Witherspoon doesn't know yet how the division of labor will work with him, Wallace and Cameron Sutton. He just knows he will be ready for whatever is asked of him.
"I don't really live with expectation," said Witherspoon. "I didn't have any idea or concept going into last year when I got traded and was able to make the best of an opportunity so I just kind of keep my brain quiet. Trust the people that do the jobs that they do, and they can trust me that I'm going to be ready for my job."
He said it:
Witherspoon on Teryl Austin taking over as defensive coordinator after working with the secondary:
"I think we'll benefit from his experience and particularly the interest that he has in us in the back end. I know he listens to what we say. He understands the challenges that come with playing in this league on the back end and just being able to give him that intel, give him that insight and him make a complete approach that helps us win football games. I think he's more than capable. Along with our head coach, they work together, and I've seen them do that, I've seen them communicate. I've seen them give and take and so I'm just excited that's coming from somebody that I have intimate experience with."