Bryan: Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Awards

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ season is over but we’re going to take this moment to celebrate their year, not dwell on how things ended. Over the next several days, writers from the site will hand out their votes for a slew of black and gold awards. By the end, we’ll tally up all the votes to see who the winners are. Here, at least T.J. Watt won’t be snubbed (or will he?).

We’ve broken this down into several categories: Offense and Defensive MVP, Rookie of the Year, Biggest Surprise and Disappointment, Play of the Year, Coach of the Year, 2022 Player to Watch, Best Addition, and Most Missed Player (a player the team lost and really couldn’t live without).

Here are my awards for the 2021 season.

Offensive MVP: QB Ben Roethlisberger

To me, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is the easy choice in this category. In 2021, Roethlisberger helped orchestrate seven game-winning drives of which six qualified as being fourth quarter comebacks. That was the most game-winning drives in one season that he has ever posted in his 18 years in the NFL. The Steelers wouldn’t have won nine games in 2021 without Roethlisberger and they likely would have won one more game in 2021 had he not been forced to miss that contest against the Detroit Lions because of him being out on the Reserve/COVID-19 list. No, the old veteran’s 2021 stats were not flashy, but it’s all about wins in the NFL and the Steelers would have had a few less of those this past season had Roethlisberger not been the quarterback.

Defensive MVP: OLB T.J. Watt

Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt was amazing in 2021 on his way to registering 22.5 sacks, which tied him for the all-time record in that statistical category. Watt once again showed in 2021 that he can be a game-wrecker. He made a huge difference in several games in 2021 to help secure victory for the team. The game against the Seattle Seahawks easily comes to mind as one of those. Like Roethlisberger on the offensive side of the football, the Steelers probably don’t win nine games in 2021 if they don’t have Watt playing as much as he did. The Steelers were 0-5-1 in games that Watt either failed to play in or failed to play at least 79 percent of the total defensive snaps in. They were 7-1 in games that Watt played at least 83 percent of all defensive snaps in. Watt should easily win the NFL’s 2021 Defensive player of the Year Award a few weeks from now.

Unsung Hero: K Chris Boswell

To me, kicker Chris Boswell easily gets this award. Boswell was 36 of 40 on his field goal attempts in 2021 and 8 of 9 on attempts of 50 yards or longer. He also made 27 of 29 regular season extra point attempts. He single-handedly kept the Steelers in several games in 2021 with his leg and foot.

Rookie Of The Year: RB Najee Harris

Running back Najee Harris gets this award from me for several reasons. First, he was able to stay healthy most of the season on his way to registering an astonishing 381 total touches and 980 total offensive snaps in the regular season. He was also great after first contact all throughout the season. For a rookie to handle what he was asked to handle in 2021 and behind the offensive line he had to handle it behind, he fared well overall. Oh, his ball security was quite excellent throughout his rookie season and his pass protection as a rookie running back was also above the line.

Biggest Disappointment: ILB Devin Bush

Inside linebacker Devin Bush returned from his 2020 knee injury in 2021 and at no point did he play like a former first round draft pick. Not only did Bush seem to be unsound assignment-wise quite a bit in games, but he also struggled to get off blocks and work through trash effectively throughout the season. The Steelers need their inside linebackers to be playmakers and unit leaders in total tackles and Bush failed miserably in both of those categories in 2021. Bush looked so bad at times in 2021 that the Steelers now have no choice but to decline picking up his fifth-year option during the offseason.

Play Of The Year: Fourth Down Tackle By CB Joe Haden vs. Titans

There are several plays that stick out in my head that qualify as potentially being the Steelers Play of the Year for 2021. However, I keep going back to the fourth and 6 tackle that cornerback Joe Haden made on Tennessee Titans wide receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine just short of the line-to-gain with less than 30 seconds remaining and the opposing offense inside the Steelers red zone. If Haden does not make that tackle short of the chains, I’m not so sure the Steelers hold on to win that Week 15 game. And had the Steelers indeed lost that game, I don’t think they would have ultimately made the playoffs. That play by Haden was huge.

Coach Of The Year: HC Mike Tomlin

Me choosing head coach Mike Tomlin as the winner of this category will not be popular. That said, the fact that Tomlin managed to get this 2021 team into the playoffs was one astonishing feat, in my honest opinion. This 2021 Steelers team was able to win nine games and after having watched the all-22 tape from all 17 games at least 10 rimes each throughout the season, I find myself amazed that they did so.

2022 Player To Watch – TE Pat Freiermuth

The Steelers selected tight end Pat Freiermuth in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft and the Penn State product went on to have a really nice rookie season on his way to registering 60 receptions for 497 yards and seven touchdowns. For as good as Freiermuth was during his 2021 rookie season, there is still room for him to improve drastically in his second season. If Freiermuth can become a much-improved blocker in his second season and then couple that with becoming more of a down-the-field receiving threat, the Steelers offense would benefit greatly. Freiermuth’s ceiling as an NFL player will likely be reached in 2022 and that ceiling could be potentially a quarter more than where he exits his rookie season at.

Best Addition: CB Ahkello Witherspoon

For a while during the 2021 season there seemed like there would be no possible way for cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon to win this award. After all, he dressed and played in just one of the team’s first nine games of the 2021 season after being acquired via a trade right before the start of the regular season. However, Witherspoon played quite a bit in the Steelers final eight regular season games on his way to registering a team-high three interceptions in addition to tallying 15 total tackles and nine defensed passes. While nobody will confuse Witherspoon’s 2021 play as being MVP worthy on that side of the football, he sure made some impactful plays in the half season that he did see the field. His play now likely has the Steelers making him an offseason priority to re-sign before the start of unrestricted free agency in March.

Most Missed – Tie DE Stephon Tuitt & DT Tyson Alualu

The Steelers defense was horrendous against the run in 2021. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt unfortunately missed the entire season following the tragic death of his brother during the summer while defensive tackle Tyson Alualu was lost for the season due to injury early in the team’s Week 2 game. Having both of those players throughout the 2021 season would have made a tremendous difference in the Steelers overall defense and especially against the run.

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