With this being the final day of 2019 and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season sadly coming to a close, it’s a chance to reflect on the year. And what a year it was.
So to recap and begin putting a bow on things, a little award show with one voter – me – for the Steelers’ superlatives of 2019.
Team MVP: Minkah Fitzpatrick
I know I’m already coming in hot with this one. Yes, there’s no question TJ Watt was the best player on the team. His award is coming up in a moment. But talent and value are two different things.
Here’s why I lean Fitzpatrick. The Steelers haven’t had an issue getting to the QB. They’ve now led the league in sacks for three straight seasons, the first team since the merger to do so. It didn’t translate to a capable defense. Pittsburgh’s found out the hard way that evidently, pressure and turnovers don’t always correlate.
What changed this year was talent in the secondary. Getting ballhawks. Players who could capitalize on those moments. Turnovers were this defense’s #1 goal and they did it with Fitzpatrick leading the way, making an impact from the moment he put on his uniform. Joe Haden would eventually tie him but Fitzpatrick became the first Steeler to intercept 4+ passes in a season since Troy Polamalu, breaking the longest drought in NFL history.
Pittsburgh would’ve significantly been hurt by not having either guy on the field. But I shudder to think what would’ve happened with Kam Kelly at FS instead of Fitzpatrick. The Steelers haven’t had issue manufacturing pressure this decade. But they’ve had issue taking the ball away. Fitzpatrick solved those issues so gets the slight edge for my MVP.
Offensive Player of the Year: David DeCastro
Gotta admit. This one feels hollow. Not a lot of options here but I went with DeCastro, the best player among the offense’s best unit (even if they didn’t always play up to par) this season. Leader in the run game, Pittsburgh ran power to victory to beat the Bengals in their rematch and DD pulled 14 times for an average of 6.2 yards.
He was a top pass protector, didn’t miss a snap, and is one of the locker room’s quiet leaders. The best player on a bad unit isn’t high praise but DeCastro still rose above the rest.
Defensive Player of the Year: TJ Watt
Because of course it’s TJ Watt. The best player on this defense with a historically good year. You’ll be telling your kids about that #90 the way your folks spoke about Jack Lambert and Jack Ham. It’s no longer a theory of if he’ll be that good. He is that good.
And as consistent as they come. Hair on fire against the run, can drop into coverage, will whoop your RT into next season, all while playing at about a 90% clip. The dude leaves it all out on the line. Every game. His next check from the Steelers will be a blank one. Watt can write in whatever number he’d like. He wants eleventy billion dollars? It’s his.
Comeback Player of the Year: Chris Boswell
This might be the most no-brainer selection on the whole list. From nearly being cut in 2018 to having one of the best seasons of any kicker in football, no one bounced back in a bigger way. And no one else needed this type of season. He was one of only two kickers to miss just a pair of kicks and the two really weren’t his fault. A bad hold by Jordan Berry on one, a 54 yard miss at home against Miami on another. If you miss from 50+ at Heinz, it shouldn’t even count.
Kickers are unpredictable. Fans saw the wrong side of that in 2018. This year, they saw the best side. That was Boz.
Rookie of the Year: Diontae Johnson
Devin Bush is certainly deserving of this award, and that’s who teammates voted to give it to so hey, who am I to argue. Just a dude on the Internet…which gives me all the authority to try. Giving the nod to Johnson due to expectations. Johnson wasn’t supposed to play as quickly nor as much as he did. Donte Moncrief was supposed to be the guy. Then he went full Limas Sweed. Johnson was forced to step in, logging starter reps as soon as Week 3, and shined. His YAC ability is special, his routes precise, and he added some much needed splash to special teams.
Ball security is an issue but Bush wasn’t without his warts either, sometimes looking like a rookie in coverage or with his run fits. Bush also got to be center to an elite defense. Johnson? Not so much on offense. Future is bright for #18.
Most Improved Player of the Year: Bud Dupree
No one else is even in the conversation. It’s Dupree. That breakout campaign came as the clock strikes 12 on his rookie contract but don’t believe that was the sole reason why Dupree figured things out. Good health, Keith Butler as LBs coach, and acting as their ROLB are all valid reasons for why he ended 2019 with 11.5 sacks, nearly double what he had done in any other season. His run defense continued to be excellent, it was arguably even better than his pass rush, while he played an even higher volume of snaps as Watt.
Biggest Disappointment: Vance McDonald
JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner were bigger letdowns but injuries kept them out of several games and obviously hindered production. Conner, for what it’s worth, played well when available.
I’d bet a couple McChickens McDonald was playing through an injury but he ultimately suited up in 14 games and played nearly 200 more snaps than he did a year ago. His production didn’t see a similar increase. Not by a longshot. His receptions fell by twelve to 38. His yards nosedived from 610 to 273. And while he found the end zone three times, two of those scores came in a Week 2 loss to Seattle.
Beyond that, his blocking was poor and one reason why the run game struggled. The dude simply didn’t look like himself and one can only hope Ben Roethlisberger will be the cure in 2019. I’m not fully convinced.
Coach of the Year: Teryl Austin
Up front, it’s hard to evaluate coaches. But Austin seemed to make an impact on a defense that went from 15 takeaways in 2018 to 38 in 2019. There was a renewed focus on turnover circuit drills during training camp and for the first time in forever, the secondary was a strength, not a liability. Adding all the talent they did sure helped and that was the driving reason but Austin seemed to maximize the group. Getting Fitzpatrick assimilated into the scheme, making Nelson a steadier player, the progression of Cam Sutton who quietly had an excellent year.
Unsung Hero Award: Tyson Alualu
This is from a Steelers’ fan perspective. Guys like Steven Nelson are worthy of discussion when looking at the NFL landscape but I think most fans recognize how well Nelson played this year, if only because he plays a more marquee, spotlight position.
Alualu though. Where did this season come from? 32 years old and coming off a pretty “meh” season in 2018, he turned in arguably his best in the three years he’s worn black and gold. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Alualu’s play didn’t make you forget about Stephon Tuitt but it eased the pain of his season-ending injury. His hand use, his power, and run defense all seemed to improve while his effort and chase to the ball remained the same. No one tried to punch the football out more often than Alualu, who ultimately forced a fumble against Buffalo.
Once though to be a possible offseason cut, there’s very little chance that happens anymore.
Austin was a strong hire.
Grit Award: Robert Spillane
Handed out to the player who showed the most #grit throughout the year doing the dirty, unappreciated, and often unnoticed work. Tyler Matakevich not only led the team but the NFL in special teams tackles but it was Spillane who captured the special teams spotlight. Despite playing in just eight games, a mid-season add after Ulysees Gilbert III went down with a back injury, he finished third on the Steelers and more impressively ninth in football with 11 special teams tackles.
If Matakevich leaves this offseason, and I really hope he doesn’t, Spillane will be next man up to replace his role and value. And yes, you’ll complain about “what does Spillane even do for this team” in August. A yearly tradition. Looking forward to it.