What Devon Witherspoon's breakout performance means for the Seahawks' defense

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- After recording two sacks in the first half of the Seattle Seahawks24-3 win over the New York Giants on Monday night, rookie cornerback Devon Witherspoon punctuated his breakout performance by intercepting a Daniel Jones pass and returning it 97 yards for a touchdown.

It slammed the door shut on any hope of a Giants comeback and, with a national audience watching on television, announced Witherspoon’s arrival in the NFL.

“That was an incredible moment for me,” he said. “First career pick is a pick-six on Monday Night Football. It don’t get no better.”

At this rate, maybe it will.

After a slow start to his career, Witherspoon is rapidly ascending into the kind of playmaker the Seahawks envisioned when they took him fifth overall in April -- ignoring the loud calls for Jalen Carter not only because they thought the Illinois cornerback was a much safer pick but also a better player than the Georgia defensive tackle, even if less of a need.

“I've never thought he wouldn’t play like this,” coach Pete Carroll said. “This is why we took him, to be active and to show that he gets this game of football, and this comes easy to him. He’s an explosive, dynamic player.”

Witherspoon has come a long way since the summer, when he was making more headlines for his ill-fated holdout and lingering hamstring injury than anything he did on the field. He missed most of training camp, all three preseason games and the season opener after re-injuring the same hamstring that had limited him in the spring. He also sat out the first two days of camp over a dispute with the $20.17 million signing bonus in his rookie contract before he and his agent accepted Seattle’s preferred payment structure.

That was a losing battle. But since Witherspoon made his debut in Week 2, he’s been winning quite a bit. He had a pair of passes defended on fourth down in that game against the Detroit Lions, though he also allowed a touchdown when he bit hard on a flea-flicker. He had two more passes defended in Week 3 against the Carolina Panthers, who tested him all afternoon.

Then came his breakout on Monday night, and on Wednesday the NFL announced Witherspoon earned NFL Defensive Player of the Week honors.

He became only the third rookie since 1982 (when sacks became an official stat) to record a pick-six and two sacks in the same game, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only one other defensive back, Captain Munnerlyn, has accomplished the feat in that span.

Another of Witherspoon’s seven tackles against the Giants came on a 1-yard gain in which he leveled running back Gary Brightwell with a big hit in the backfield.

“He played really, really well,” linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “He’s really coming into his own every time he plays. He’s very, very smart and every time he steps out there gets smarter.”

Witherspoon’s smarts are part of the reason the Seahawks began working him in the slot during the spring, believing he could handle all the quick processing that it takes to excel inside as well as the mental load of playing two positions in the same game. His willingness to tackle was another.

Witherspoon hadn’t played nickelback in college, winding up inside only on occasions when he’d follow a receiver there in man-to-man situations, but he took to the new role quickly before he re-injured his hamstring. With all the time he missed, the Seahawks didn’t feel he was ready to fill a dual role right out of the gates. With Coby Bryant and Artie Burns both out Monday night, they didn’t have much of a choice.

After strictly playing left cornerback in his first two games, Witherspoon was inside for all but 12 snaps against the Giants, as Seattle’s defense spent most of the night in nickel. One of his sacks came on a blitz from the slot (he was credited for the other sack when he dropped Parris Campbell for a loss in the flat on a backwards pass).

During his weekly radio show on Seattle Sports 710-AM, Carroll relayed what seemed like a half-joking comment from general manager John Schneider about how Witherspoon now has more sacks than Carter’s 1.5.

The Seahawks aren’t going to rely on Witherspoon’s pass-rushing the way they will with Jamal Adams, but it is another way he can affect games from the slot.

“If you compare it to playing corner, there's so many more things that happen,” Carroll said. “And there's guys on both sides of you -- you’re not playing on the edge -- and there's runs and passes and blitzes and mixes of coverages and things like that, that makes it a position for a guy that can handle all of that naturally. A lot of this is natural skill and awareness that he could pick stuff up so soon and be so dynamic in there in such short order.”

The Seahawks should get Bryant back from his toe injury after this week’s bye, while Burns’ status will be TBD with his hamstring injury. But even when everyone is healthy, Seattle may have a hard time taking Witherspoon out of the slot given how well he played there in his debut.

“He's just going to get better and better,” Carroll said. “It’s a really, really exciting thing to watch for us, and so we'll keep going with it.”