It looked like Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon had it played perfectly. In the end, it turned out as poorly as it possibly could have for the veteran cornerback and the Steelers’ defense Sunday at Acrisure Stadium.
Late in the first half on a third and three from the Steelers’ 44 yard line, Witherspoon was right in phase with Patriots wide receiver Nelson Agholor on a 9-route down the right sideline that New England quarterback Mac Jones seemed to underthrow slightly. Getting his head turned around to find the football, Witherspoon appeared in position to make the interception.
Instead, in the blink of an eye Agholor skied over Witherspoon and ripped the football away for the game-changing touchdown from 44 yards out late in the first half, giving the Patriots a seemingly insurmountable 10-3 lead at the half that ultimately helped key them on to the 17-14 win.
Asked after the loss what Witherspoon could have done differently on the play, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin stated simply that the veteran cornerback needed to play the football above eye level, instead of waiting for it to come down like he did on the play, resulting in the touchdown.
“Yeah, play the ball above eye level,” Tomlin said to reporters following the loss, according to video via the Steelers’ official YouTube page. “He’s a big guy, you gotta play the ball above eye level.”
While Witherspoon waited for the football to come down, Agholor seized upon the opportunity and made a play on the football, resulting in the explosive play touchdown, sparking the Patriots, sending them into the half on a high note.
Witherspoon sat dejected on the bench after the touchdown and was rather mellow in the locker room after the loss. Speaking with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Chris Adamski, Witherspoon credited Agholor for making a great play, but that he needed to make a play on the ball.
“Go get the ball, simple as that,” Witherspoon said to Adamski, according to a video on Twitter. “I wasn’t really worried about him elevating because he’s a smaller receiver, but he did so and came down with the ball.”
If Witherspoon makes a play above eye level and at least knocks the football away, the Patriots are forced to settle for a long field goal attempt from Nick Folk, or even punt the football away, likely sending the two teams into the half tied at 3-3. Instead, the 10-3 lead on a play in which the Steelers were clearly in position to make a play in their favor was quite deflating for the black and gold.