Kozora: 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: Najee Harris

This certainly wasn’t a banner year for the Steelers’ offense. And there probably wasn’t a clear-cut offensive MVP. Diontae Johnson did have an impressive third season but it was a bit marred by an uninspiring end. I’m going to give the edge to Harris, the rookie who was asked by the team to be anything but. It’s rare for a first-year player to have such high expectations and largely, he hit those marks.

His issues and flaws were less of issues within his own games, though he was by no means flawless, but more the problems around him. A brand new offensive line and a highly limited offense overall made all 1200 of his rushing yards well-earned. He was a three-down back out of the gate, something even Le’Veon Bell can’t quite say about his rookie season. Harris ran, caught, and blocked at a high level. He set the franchise rookie record for most rushing yards, total yards, and receptions, the latter breaking Chase Claypool’s mark set just a year ago. That was boosted by a 14-reception performance early in the year.

Harris displayed excellent power, contact balance, and overall effort. He took great care of the football, not fumbling once with his 381 regular season touches. His first and only fumble came in the Wild Card loss likely due to his elbow injury.

He did all this while being the NFL’s true workhorse back. Harris played 83.5% of the snaps. The next closest back? 68.9%. Only three other backs in the league sat above 60%. Harris was billed to be the Steelers’ guy and he was that with incredible conditioning and maturity of a rookie, clearly taking care of his body and doing the little things to rarely miss a practice and never missing a game (aside from a slight cramping episode against the Broncos).

Yes, Harris’ year was volume over efficiency. But watch the tape and you see why this team took him 24th overall. He’s a very good back and just getting started.

Defensive MVP: Cam Heyward

I know, I know. I’m one voice in the chorus of Steelers’ fans screaming that TJ Watt should be named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. And he deserves it. But I’m choosing to be a little different here with Heyward. He is the soul of this defense. The leader. The professional. The old-man veteran who found a way to have his best season at 32 years old. An absurd 89 tackles, ten sacks, and nine pass deflections. Put on the tape and Heyward was dominant time and time again, a bully on the field who won with his bull rush and long-arm time and time again. No player, not even Watt, makes full-grown men look as bad as often as Heyward does.

Importantly, he shouldered the load as the pieces around him were lost. No Stephon Tuitt. No Tyson Alualu. A revolving door of young and inexperienced faces along the defensive line. Heyward was the consistent presence, making up for others mistakes and knowing he was the guy who had to make all the key plays. He made them in the biggest moments with seven of his ten sacks coming on 3rd/4th down, tied fifth most in the league and more than the likes of Myles Garrett and Aaron Donald.

Above all else though, he is the leader on and off the field. Watching Heyward is a master class in how to not just play the position but how to play football. Be relentless. Give fanatical effort. Play with technique, control, but emotion. I’ve never seen a defensive lineman chase the ball the way Heyward does. In the regular season, he had six tackles of 10+ yards downfield and added a seven in the Wild Card loss, highlighted (though these plays often come in lowlight moments) by his tackle on Justin Herbert 36 yards downfield to save a touchdown.

Heyward is what it means to be a Steeler. He’s not quite on the same level, not yet anyway, but deserves to be spoken in the same breath as the greats before him, Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood. If he plays the way he’s playing for another 2-3 years, with big numbers, Pro Bowls, and All-Pro votes, he’ll have a legitimate Hall of Fame case in the mind’s of third-party voters. Watching him over the years, he’s already worthy of a gold jacket.

Rookie Of The Year: Najee Harris

You can apply what I wrote about him above to this column. Credit to Pat Freiermuth, he had an awesome rookie season and his future is as bright as Harris’. But he got to ease into that role. Harris was sink or swim. It’s a fair question how much longer he can handle the load and odds are, Harris won’t be the last player from this class standing. But props to him for a strong rookie season given the difficult circumstances. Never seemed to bother him. He just kept chugging along.

Biggest Surprise: Chris Wormley

Replacing a guy as talented as Stephon Tuitt is an almost impossible task. Chris Wormley was no Tuitt. But he did a bang-up job in trying to fill those big shoes. As a first-year NFL starter, Wormley finished the year with a career-high seven sacks, including a great revenge game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Wormley’s play was overshadowed by the team’s historically bad run defense. And I understand those two things are hard to separate. But largely, the issues were on the young defensive linemen and poor inside linebacker player as opposed to the likes of Heyward and Wormley. Wormley was solid against the run and is a technical pass rusher, making up for his average athletic tools.

Wormley wasn’t a bad player for the Steelers or for the Ravens. He just met opportunity this year and showed he can be a good starter. If Stephon Tuitt returns, Wormley will become one of the league’s top backups.

Biggest Disappointment: Chase Claypool

This award could go to Devin Bush or even Zach Banner. But those guys at least have the excuse of severe injury. Claypool doesn’t have such an asterisk, though he did play through painful turf toe for parts of the year. Still, his issues popped up before any injury ever did. His training camp performance was underwhelming, an outlook that carried over into regular season action.

Hot off a great rookie season, Claypool never reached those heights in 2021. He struggled as a vertical threat in an offense that demanded he be one, losing out on jump-balls too often and seemingly falling to the ground on every catch attempt. His big plays were far and few between and overshadowed by media storylines from believing music would solve the team’s issues to first down signals on a running clock late in the loss to Minnesota. To his credit, he did seem to mature by season’s end, though his play didn’t do much growing.

Claypool not only failed to take a second-year leap, he took step backwards from year one. His long-term future with the team is in question and he’ll need to have a Diontae Johnson-like rise in 2023 to get back on steady ground.

Play Of The Year: Top Three

Cheating here a little bit by handing out three medals: Bronze, Silver, and Gold. The three best from 2021.

Bronze: Pat Freiermuth’s Block On Tre White

Welcome to the NFL, kid. Usually that sentence gets said when the rookie gets put flat on his back. In his first game in the NFL, it was TE Pat Freiermuth riding someone into the bleachers Michael Oher Blindside style. Sure, it’s a corner half his size but when was the last time you saw any tight end finish a block like this? Early moment that said, this kid is legit.


Silver: TJ Watt’s Record-Tying Sack

Easy choice to put on the podium. One for the record books. Watt’s was well-earned, no quarterback sliding down like Brett Favre. Disengage from the chipping TE, ghost and dip under the right tackle, corner, and finish. Why Watt is one of the best.


Gold: Diontae Johnson’s TD Vs Chargers

Johnson gets the gold. Not because of the weight of his play but just how exceptional it was. A great route on a slant/corner route. The ability to create space and track the ball over his shoulder, difficult for a receiver to do, make a contested catch, secure it the whole way down, and get a foot and a knee inbounds for the touchdown. An incredible play.

I did consider his catch against the Bills in Week One, a similar grab and one he had to juggle, but on that play, he got to face the ball and look it in the whole way. In that sense, it made it a bit easier.


Coach Of The Year: Alfredo Roberts

A name some Steelers’ fans may have forgotten about. Roberts is the team’s TEs coached, hired to replace the legendary James Daniel this year. All Roberts did was:

1. Develop Pat Freiermuth into a quality starter with a bright future
2. Aid in Zach Gentry’s breakout season from fringe roster player to quality #2 tight end with a real role in heavy packages
3. Overall, build a solid, consistent room despite youth and injury

Plenty of rooms and position groups took steps backward this year. Wide receiver, inside linebacker, corner. Some of that is talent and turnover related, it’s not all on coaching, but Roberts’ group ascended. At camp, he worked those guys hard, getting in extra reps and drills before practice. Seemingly cut from a similar cloth as Daniel, Roberts is old-school but seems to have a little more tender streak than the man he replaced, similar to Karl Dunbar replacing the drill sergeant John Mitchell.

A strong hire by Mike Tomlin, the team needed a coach like Roberts. He’s done his job and done it well.

2022 Player To Watch: Tre Norwood

Norwood was the next-to-last player the Steelers drafted, a seventh round selection who had an uphill climb to make the roster. But he showed his talents in the summer and praised by virtually everyone for his strong football IQ. It allowed him to see the field much sooner than most late Day Three picks, bouncing between slot corner, safety, and dime work throughout the year.

Sometimes, there was too much on his plate, but he played well for large parts of the season, showing impressive ball skills and coverage ability despite an average athletic profile. His tackling was better than expected too and though he’s not the next Mike Hilton, he could be this team’s starting slot corner in 2022. A strong value pick by this team.

Best Addition: CB Ahkello Witherspoon

Not a sentence I anticipated writing for the first ten weeks of the season. Traded for a 5th round pick right before the season started, Witherspoon was glued to the bench for the first half of the season. But after injuries to Joe Haden, Witherspoon was called into action and stepped up to the challenge. He had just a 13.5 QB rating against this year, using his size and length to his advantage and being aggressive on the football.

We’ll see if the team re-signs him in the offseason, I think they will but it takes two to tango, but he played important ball for Pittsburgh at the end of their playoff run.

Most Missed: Tyson Alualu

A topic I wrote about earlier in the season. Stephon Tuitt is the more talented player but Chris Wormley replaced him better than the mess in the middle did trying to replace Alualu. Isaiah Buggs, Henry Mondeaux, even a bit of Cam Heyward throughout the year until the team semi-settled in on Montravius Adams for the last handful of games.

There’s been a clear correlation between the Steelers’ run defense when Alualu is healthy (very good), when he has played hurt (average) and when he’s been out of the lineup (abysmal). Without him for all but five quarters this year, Pittsburgh finished with not only the 32nd ranked run defense, it was a historically bad one in franchise history. And this team has been playing football for a long time, built around stopping the run. This year was the lowest of lows.

Hearing the news of Alualu’s return is a big win heading into the offseason.

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