Heitritter: 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 TJ 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: RB Najee Harris

Najee Harris met the expectations placed upon him by Pittsburgh when the selected him at 24th overall in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, being that feature back the offense desperately needed going into 2021. Granted, Harris’s efficiency wasn’t great as a runner on the ground (3.9 YPC) but he was extremely reliable from an availability standpoint, playing 980 offensive snaps and remained relatively healthy until the end of the season when he sustained his elbow injury, but still managed to play in the Wildcard Game. Despite the stagnant offense and patchwork offensive line, Harris managed to rack up 1,200 yards rushing along with 467 yards receiving to add up to 1,667 total scrimmage yards and ten TDs in his first season.

Defensive MVP – EDGE T.J. Watt

This one doesn’t need an explanation. T.J. Watt tied the single-season sack record and single-handedly took over games this season when the team needed him most, making impact plays to seal victories for Pittsburgh. Watt should be a shoo-in for Defensive Player of the Year, and is the unquestioned team Defensive MVP.

Rookie Of The Year – RB Najee Harris

This one doesn’t need much of an explanation as Harris made a profound impact on the offensive side of the football in his first season in the NFL, totaling 381 touches as the team’s workhorse back. Like I mentioned earlier, Harris made the most of poor circumstances this season in the Pittsburgh offense, finishing fourth in the league in rushing and managed to break Franco Harris’s rookie rushing yards record. Harris also got it done as a receiver, breaking the receptions record by a rookie with 74 catches on 94 targets, crushing the previous mark set by Chase Claypool last season at 62. Should the offensive line improve, look for Harris to become the focal point of the offense going into 2022.

Unsung Hero – CB Ahkello Witherspoon

When the trade was made to acquire Witherspoon for a 2023 fifth round pick, many questioned the impact he would have this season. HE started the season as a game-day inactive after getting beat deep in Week 2 against the Raiders, looking to be a foolish waste of draft capital for a guy who couldn’t get onto the field. However, Witherspoon turned it on in a big way to close out the year, allowing 14 receptions on 37 targets (37.8%) for 6.3 yards per target. He also had three INTs and nine PBUs, finishing the season with a 35.1 passer rating allowed and a 75.9 PFF grade. A pending UFA, Witherspoon did his best to boost his value, and Pittsburgh should look to re-sign him.

Biggest Disappointment – Devin Bush

Guys like Kendrick Green and Joe Schobert also came to mind here, but considering the investment and expectations put on Devin Bush when the decided to trade up in the first round in 2019 to select him, this season was a huge disappointment. In Bush’s defense, he did suffer a torn ACL last season and had to come back to be ready in time to play. Still, many others in the league have shown they have been able to overcome the same injury and return to play at a high level. Bush did not, being slow to process plays, miss multiple tackles, and play with aggressiveness and physicality we saw to begin his career.

Bush still has next season to prove he can rebound from a terrible 2021 campaign (32.0 overall PFF Grade), but the likelihood is that Pittsburgh will decline his fifth-year option this offseason and look to potentially address the linebacker position via the draft or free agency to push or potentially replace Bush and/or Schobert inside to shore up the run defense heading into 2022.

Play Of The Year –Week 18: 4th & 8 completion from Ben Roethlisberger to Ray-Ray McCloud in OT

When thinking about Play of the Year, I wanted to choose a play that defined the Pittsburgh Steelers’ season. Seeing as Pittsburgh doesn’t make the playoffs if they lose to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 18, I figured the fourth down conversion pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Ray-Ray McCloud in overtime was a good choice for several reasons. Not only did the play keep the drive alive to win the game, Pittsburgh likely loses the game if they fail to convert, giving the ball back to the Ravens with Justin Tucker just a first down away from being in range. This play also encapsulates Pittsburgh’s season in a nutshell, as it wasn’t often pretty, but they did what they had to do to win games.

Coach Of The Year: Mike Tomlin

I considered ST Coordinator Dany Smith due to the two blocked kicks, but Tomlin is the obvious choice here. What this team was able to do with the losses they had from last season due to free agency, cuts, and injuries is commendable given the sheer number of starters and role players they lost on both sides of the football. While the offense was one of the worst in the league and the run defense had a historically bad season, Tomlin somehow got this team into the playoffs with a regular season point differential of -55 which was the worst of Mike Tomlin’s career as a head coach. He won’t get Coach of the Year nominations, but Tomlin seemingly accomplished the impossible this season.

2022 Player To Watch OT Dan Moore Jr.

Given the recent comments from the coaching staff about Dan Moore Jr. about his development and the refusal to put Zach Banner back into the starting lineup after he was healthy, all signs point to Pittsburgh going forward with Moore as one of their starting tackles into 2022. I was critical of Moore and his performance to start the season, suggesting he lacked the anchor and synchronized punch and footwork to be a consistent starter. While he had his ups and downs, there were moments where Moore flashed as a fourth-round rookie at LT. Pittsburgh should still look to address the tackle position with Chuks Okorafor scheduled for free agency, but Moore has a chance to prove that he is a long-term solution next season.

Best FA Addition / Trade / PS poaching : DL Montravius Adams

I considered Witherspoon for this award given his impact, but given his status as a free agent, he may be more difficult to bring back after a productive end to his season. Montravius Adams is another name scheduled for free agency, but his impact far exceeded the stat sheet after being picked off the Saints practice squad prior to the Week 13 game against the Baltimore Ravens. Adams added much needed help upfront along the defensive line, helping the run defense as well as succeeding as a one-gap penetrator that showed fantastic effort in pursuit of the football. Adams has already stated he wants to finish his career in Pittsburgh, and he shouldn’t cost much to re-sign this offseason as a key contributor upfront.

Most Missed Player: DL Tyson Alualu

Several names came to mind for this award including Stephon Tuitt and David DeCastro. However, I wanted to recognize Tyson Alualu’s impact on this defense and what the loss of his presence meant this season. Alex Kozora broke down Alualu’s impact on the run defense last season as Pittsburgh allowed 2.91 YPC with Alualu on the field vs 4.85 YPC when he was out. Despite being 34 years old, Alualu has played as one of the best run-stopping DL in the league the last two seasons, dominating guards and centers to stuff the middle. Without Alualu in the lineup, Pittsburgh ceded 2483 yards on the ground this season and 5.0 YPC, both worst in the NFL.

Alualu intends to return next season, providing much needed reinforcements upfront for a unit that was gashed consistently this season on the ground. While he may be 35 next season, his presence along with the addition of Montravius Adams and the development Isaiahh Loudermilk and Chris Wormley showed this season should help turn things around for Pittsburgh’s run defense. If Tuitt can come back healthy with Alualu back in the fold, Pittsburgh has a chance to revert back to the 2019 and 2020 level of run defense we are used to seeing in the Steel City.

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