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: RB Najee Harris
I don’t think there’s much question about this. Nobody touched the ball more, and nobody got into the end zone more, so that’s a good place to start. He was also about the most reliable player you could ask for right out of the gate, recording close to 400 touches on the season without fumbling. He did finally fumble in the postseason game, after injuring his ball-carrying arm and compromising his ability to secure the ball.
The most exciting thing about Harris’ rookie season is that there is still so much upside. He has already established himself as one of the most elusive players in the game, but so much of that elusiveness is wasted in the backfield, turning three-yard losses into three-yard gains. He can be turning three-yard runs into 13-yarders with regularity as he and the offense grows. And you can bet that he’s only going to get more important as a receiver and blocker.
Defensive MVP: OLB T.J. Watt
Just look at the Steelers’ record when he plays a full game and when he doesn’t. Watt isn’t the only superstar on the defense, but he’s certainly the biggest difference-maker. There may not be a more complete defender in football.
When you have 22.5 sacks, 21 tackles for loss, and seven passes defensed all in the same season, that tells you you’re looking at a player with a complete body of work. He’s not just a pass rusher. He’s not just a run defender. And he also has an acute awareness of coverage responsibilities and knows how to play the run and the passing lanes on the way to the quarterback. Elite is hardly adequate to describe him at this point.
Rookie of the Year: RB Najee Harris
When you’re a rookie and you’re the team’s offensive MVP, it almost goes without saying that you’re probably going to be the team’s rookie of the year as well. That is the case for the Steelers’ Najee Harris, who immediately became one of the five most important players on the entire team the second he stepped on the field. He will define the offense for at least the next few years.
Biggest Surprise: TE Zach Gentry
It’s naturally tempting to include a defensive lineman who suddenly starts recording sacks, but for the team’s biggest (positive) surprise in 2021, I’m going to go with Zach Gentry, who spent most of his first two seasons as a healthy scratch.
A 2019 fifth-round pick, Gentry spent the years learning and growing. Much of that we didn’t even get to see because of the pandemic in 2020, which eliminated the preseason, but we got to see those strides this year.
He played in every game, logging nearly 500 snaps, establishing himself as their number one blocker, and he also became more and more trusted in the passing game as the season wore on. He was targeted 15 times in the final four games, catching 13 passes for 103 yards. He should have a more proactive role in 2022.
Biggest Disappointment: ILB Devin Bush
Admittedly, some of my decisions are at least partly driven by a desire to shake things up a bit. Chris Wormley for the last award and Chase Claypool for this ‘award’ are obviously fine choices. But I’m still going with Devin Bush.
The Steelers invested first-, second-, and third-round draft picks in Bush in 2019 when they traded up to get him. He is supposed to be one of the pillars of the defense for the next decade. It’s not clear if he will even see a second contract.
Bush had such a bad year that he ended up getting demoted into a rotational role. Is there hope for the future? How much better can he look more than a year removed from a torn ACL—and with a proper defensive line in front of him?
Play of the Year: Najee Harris’ Closeout Explosive-Play TD in Ben Roethlisberger’s Heinz Field Swansong
If we’re talking about pure emotion, this was the highlight of the season, and a moment that felt like the changing of the guard, carrying the torch into the future of the offense. For the past 18 years, that was Ben Roethlisberger first and foremost. Najee Harris is going to be the face of this offense for at least the next few years, most likely.
The atmosphere of that week was palpable knowing it was Roethlisberger’s last game in Heinz Field, and a must-win for a potential playoff appearance. Harris talked during the week about how badly he wanted to have a big game and start breaking some long runs.
This was a huge catharsis moment capping off a statement game from the rookie back, a 31-yard 3rd-and-2 conversion for an explosive-play touchdown, the Steelers’ longest rush of the entire season, in a 19-14 game. If you were watching the game, you felt this moment. Period.
2022 Player to Watch: T Dan Moore Jr.
Truth be told, if I were up to bat first, I probably would have also picked Tre Norwood, but for the sake of changing things up, I’m going with Dan Moore Jr. I actually considered him for rookie of the year, but I know that wouldn’t have gone over well.
A fourth-round draft pick, Moore was handed the starting job at left tackle a week before the regular season started when Zach Banner had a setback with his knee injury. It’s questionable whether or not he was ready to play this role, but he never buckled, and he continued to grow.
If he can prove to the Steelers that he is capable of handling their left tackle job, that’s a major question answered for this franchise. And worst-case scenario, they find a franchise left tackle and move him to the right side.
Best Addition: CB Ahkello Witherspoon
There aren’t a ton of options here, and frankly midseason it didn’t look like there were any good ones, but Witherspoon played a lot, and played well, in the second half of the year. They’ll no doubt look to re-sign him this offseason, and potentially start him, especially (obviously) if Joe Haden is not re-signed.
Most Missed: DL Stephon Tuitt
There’s no wrong answer here between Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, but I’m going with the more overtly impactful player in Tuitt. The absence of a quality nose tackle was devastating to the run game, admittedly, but having Tuitt there, especially in terms of allowing for quality depth, would have helped that a lot as well.
So much of the burden of making plays in the trenches this year was placed on Cameron Heyward and Watt. Getting Tuitt back, who is at their level athletically, would take this defense back to another level, where they found themselves in 2020.