Seattle Seahawks Film Analysis: Devon Witherspoon Revolutionizing Slot CB Role

Unfazed by lofty expectations as a top-five pick, Devon Witherspoon put up historic numbers as a rookie for the Seahawks, showcasing a skill set that could transform the slot cornerback role.
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) is sacked by Seattle Seahawks cornerback Devon Witherspoon (21) during the third quarter at State Farm Stadium in Glendale on Jan. 7, 2024.
Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) is sacked by Seattle Seahawks cornerback Devon Witherspoon (21) during the third quarter at State Farm Stadium in Glendale on Jan. 7, 2024. / Michael Chow/The Republic / USA TODAY
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RENTON, Wash. - Entering only his second NFL season, Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Macdonald doesn't want Devon Witherspoon's previous success as a rookie or his immense all-around talent to go to his head.

But when asked about how Witherspoon's football IQ stacks up against players he previously coached with the Ravens and at Michigan following the Seahawks final mandatory minicamp practice earlier this month, Macdonald couldn't help but gush about his dynamic do-it-all playmaker, who has emerged as the team's unsung leader on defense so far under a new coaching staff.

"Is he going to hear this or not?" Macdonald joked, responding, "It's high. For a second-year guy, to be able to take something from the meeting, register is quickly. The questions he asks are really spot on, like no BS-type questions. He understands a concept. He understands, you can tell he's visualizing himself going through all the rules. When he's clear, it's good. When it's not, he nails it, takes it right to the field. Yeah, it's pretty high."

As exhibited numerous times throughout his first offseason program after being named as the successor for Pete Carroll, the mere mention of the uber-energetic Witherspoon leaves Macdonald grinning ear to ear, and it's not difficult to see why.

When considering his options as a highly-coveted head coaching candidate this spring, several factors led to Macdonald ultimately choosing to accept the Seahawks job. But while inheriting a nine-win team and joining an organization with a sterling reputation stood out at the top of his list, having the chance to coach a player of Witherspoon's skill level and football smarts likely served as the cherry on top.

Putting up a historic stat line as a rookie, Witherspoon lived up to the billing as a top-five draft pick and then some. Even missing three games due to injury, he became only the seventh player since 1999 to amass three sacks, eight tackles for loss, and 15 pass breakups in a single season and the first rookie to achieve the feat, finishing fourth in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting and receiving a spot on the Pro Bowl roster.

Landing him in even more exclusive company, per Pro Football Reference, Witherspoon joined Karlos Dansby, Rodney Harrison, Takeo Spikes, and Daryl Smith as only the fifth player since 2000 with the aforementioned numbers and a defensive touchdown in the same season, making him the only cornerback to hit those criteria.

After starring as a shutdown cornerback on the outside at Illinois, Witherspoon produced those gaudy stats while seeing nearly half of his snaps reduced inside to the slot, where Macdonald believes his unique talents are best accentuated.

"Great feel for the game. I mean, just picks things up really quick, but just understands ball and plays at a really, really fast speed," Macdonald said of Witherspoon in the slot. "At nickel there is a lot of action in there, and so when guys have that type of skill set you can get them right around the action as much as possible. He'll do all the things: He'll blitz, man, zone, play deep in the field, so it's a fun position to play."

At one point, slot cornerback was a niche position in the NFL. But as the passing game has become king in the league over the past decade or so, opposing defensives have been forced to counter with increased nickel and dime usage deploying five or six defensive backs on the field at one time, making the slot role far more important for slowing down high-octane offenses.

While it may seem like hyperbole, paired with a defensive mastermind in Macdonald who coordinated the NFL's top defense with the Ravens last season and has excelled with aggressive defensive backs over the years, Witherspoon's all-around game and rare talents could be the ingredients necessary to metamorphose the slot cornerback position in the NFL as we know it.

As the position evolves into a critical part of modern defenses, no player may have a better skill set to unleash as a weapon from the slot than Witherspoon, whose presence creates problems for opposing offenses in all phases of the game.

In coverage, despite only playing a handful of slot snaps at the college level, Witherspoon immediately looked like a natural moving inside as a rookie for Seattle during training camp and it didn't take him long to start turning in game-changing plays in the nickel role.

In just his third NFL game, with the Giants only five yards away from putting six points on the board, the rookie orchestrated a potential 14-point swing by jumping a pivot route from his curl/hook responsibility in Cover 3. After baiting quarterback Daniel Jones into the throw, he returned his first career interception 97 yards for a back-breaking touchdown to help seal a 24-3 road win on Monday Night Football.

Two weeks later, despite Seattle dropping a tough 17-13 decision on the road in Cincinnati, Witherspoon stood toe-to-toe with one of the NFL's elite receivers in JaMarr Chase and shutting him down, holding the former All-Pro to one catch for three yards on three targets against him with a pair of pass breakups.

One of those deflections came on an impressive play where Witherspoon quickly sprinted out of his backpedal into zone to sprint up and punch the ball out of Chase's hands on a short drag route, forcing the incompletion. He later added a second pass breakup off the back of his helmet, as he had such sticky coverage on the star receiver that quarterback Joe Burrow couldn't sneak the pass in past him even without the defender turning to play the ball.

For the season, according to Pro Football Focus charting, Witherspoon finished in the top five among qualified slot cornerbacks in yards after the catch (131), receptions allowed (25), yards allowed (235), and snaps per reception (10.4). He also ranked fifth in passer rating allowed (84.8) and with most of his coverage snaps coming inside, he finished seventh in forced incompletion rate (18 percent), playing dominant coverage most of his rookie season for Seattle.

But what makes Witherspoon a transcending talent from the slot isn't merely his fantastic coverage skills, but his unrivaled ability to create constant disruption as a physical, hard-hitting run defender and an elite blitzer.

Despite being under 185 pounds, Witherspoon brings his hard hat and a hammer to work every Sunday, ready to thump ball carriers into submission. When sent on the blitz, he finds the football functioning like a heat-seeking missile on steroids, as evidenced by his fantastic play chasing down Steelers running back Jaylen Warren on a counter lead out of shotgun from the opposite side of the field before throwing him like a rag doll to the turf for a five-yard loss.

Even when Witherspoon isn't blitzing, he has an uncanny knack for slithering through and around blocks to find ball carriers in the backfield, showcasing linebacker skills in a cornerback body and providing the flexibility to move into the box for extra run support in a pinch.

During the same game where he lit up the Giants with a pick six, Witherspoon also made his mark with punishing hits as a run defender. In just one of many examples, on a first down play near midfield, after quickly reading run while playing in the box, he slipped past a crack block attempt by receiver Darius Slayton and played the role of a brick wall as running back Gary Brightwell bounced off of him like a crash test dummy before dropping to the turf for no gain.

When facing explosive dual-threat quarterbacks such as Cardinals signal caller Kyler Murray, most NFL teams wouldn't be comfortable with their slot corner being on an island as the "contain" defender against read option plays. But in the case of Witherspoon, the Seahawks found great success allowing their edge defenders to crash down on running backs because of the defender's toughness and reliability as a tackler.

In last year's season finale at Arizona, "Spoon" showed off his versatility by pinning down Murray for a one-yard gain on a read-option keeper, displaying the flexibility he provides that few other slot corners in the NFL can match.

For the season, Witherspoon tied for eighth among cornerbacks with 13 run stops and finished fourth with 25 solo tackles, earning a stellar 80.0 grade from Pro Football Focus.

Last, but certainly not least, Witherspoon's dominance as a blitzer stands out amongst his other outstanding traits and skills. Though he wasn't sent as an extra rusher often by the Seahawks with 30 pass rush attempts in 14 games, he made those opportunities count as much as any player in football, turning those chances into 10 pressures, a 33.3 percent pressure rate, and three sacks, giving opponents headaches in the process.

From a timing standpoint, Witherspoon excels at knowing when to take off for the quarterback, often waiting until the last moment to show his intentions. On his first career sack against the Giants, he looked to be moving with Slayton as he motioned outside before coming back in to the slot, only to rocket out of his position unblocked off the left side with a straight beeline to Jones, smashing him for an eight-yard loss.

Later in that same game, Witherspoon flashed the elite instincts Macdonald referenced at this month's minicamp, not being fooled by a trick play with receiver Parris Campbell attempting to throw. Before Campbell could even get into his throwing motion, the young defender shot out of his drop like a cannonball and slung the wideout to the ground for his second sack of the game.

Even when Witherspoon didn't get to the quarterback, he found ways to make a positive impact when sent on the blitz. On the opening defensive drive against the Bengals, for example, he flew unblocked into the face of Burrow and as the quarterback reared back to throw, he extended his arms up into the passing lane for a pass deflection, registering one of his three batted passes on the season.

Reflecting on Witherspoon's sensational rookie season, there's a reason no other cornerback in the past 20-plus years had posted the same stat line as he did last year, as he possesses a rare set of skills and instincts that have never been seen before at the slot position. And at just 23 years old, the scary part for the rest of the NFL is that Witherspoon has yet to come close to reaching his full potential, as he only intercepted one pass as a rookie and surely will have many more to come.

Seeing the success Macdonald had with versatile safety Kyle Hamilton over the past two years, the sky should be the limit for Witherspoon starring in his scheme where he will see extensive action inside to take advantage of his physicality and blitzing prowess. After long being viewed as a situational position for obvious passing downs, the Seahawks have a budding superstar poised to revolutionize the slot role and transform it into one of the most important in the sport that will surely leave other teams trying to play copy cat.


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Corbin K. Smith

CORBIN K. SMITH

Graduating from Manchester College in 2012, Smith began his professional career as a high school Economics teacher in Indianapolis and launched his own NFL website covering the Seahawks as a hobby. After teaching and coaching high school football for five years, he transitioned to a full-time sports reporter in 2017, writing for USA Today's Seahawks Wire while continuing to produce the Legion of 12 podcast. He joined the Arena Group in August 2018 and also currently hosts the daily Locked On Seahawks podcast with Rob Rang and Nick Lee. Away from his coverage of the Seahawks and the NFL, Smith dabbles in standup comedy, is a heavy metal enthusiast and previously performed as lead vocalist for a metal band, and enjoys distance running and weight lifting. A habitual commuter, he resides with his wife Natalia in Colorado and spends extensive time reporting from his second residence in the Pacific Northwest.