Mead: 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 – Diontae Johnson

I used to get annoyed when Johnson would run out of bounds or give himself up instead of trying to get extra yards but that ended early this year. I wanted him to protect his body. Considering the ineffectiveness of the rest of the receiver group and the early loss of Juju Smith-Schuster I can’t imagine what this offense would be without him. He had 64 more targets the next closest wide receiver. He had 48 more receptions than the next closest. Over 300 more yards and he doubled the touchdown total of the rest of the group (8 to 4). I tabbed him as a breakout candidate in June and he set career highs in almost every category.

Defensive MVP – T.J. Watt

So maybe sitting out the preseason isn’t such a bad thing. After signing the big extension in September he hit the ground running and never looked back.  Quarterbacks however were looking back. He tied the recognized single season sack record and led the league in sacks for the second year in a row.  He led the league in tackles for a loss for the second consecutive season as well. He knocks down passes (7), he forces fumbles (5), he recovers fumbles (3) and had a scoop and score to give us hope early in the playoff game. An honorable mention for Cam Heyward who also does it all but Watt gets the nod.

Unsung Hero – Chris Wormley

The defense dealt with many losses in the front seven and they suffered because of it.  Wormley was brought in via a trade in 2020 to be a depth player along the defensive front and played just 148 snaps. He was considered more of run defender than pass rusher. In 2021, he started 14 of 15 games played and played 729 snaps, well over his career high of 448. He finished with 51 tackles, six tackles for a loss, ten quarterback hits, and seven sacks. All career highs. He doubled his career sack total. The defense as a whole didn’t perform as well as we hoped but without Wormley it could have been much worse.

Rookie Of The Year – Najee Harris

Once the Steelers first round pick got on the field, he wouldn’t let any other running back take his place. Up until the last two weeks of the season when he hurt his elbow he played well over 90% of the snaps. He led the league in touches with 366 and was fourth in yards from scrimmage with 1,667. He was third on the team in targets and second in receptions and totaled ten touchdowns on the season.  Gaining 1,200 rushing behind a subpar offensive line makes you wonder what he could do with a good one. Hopefully we will get to see next year.

Biggest Disappointment – Chase Claypool

He made a big splash as a rookie and some outlets had him as a player to watch to make a big jump in season number two. Myself, I hoped for a solid increase in receptions and yards and a dip in touchdowns. I found myself perplexed by him most of the season.  He wasn’t making the contested catch. His timing on jump balls was off and he rarely stayed on his feet on throws outside the numbers compounded with an unusual habit of extended backward at a forty-five degree angle rather than jumping vertically. That led to virtually the same numbers in receptions and yards despite a 16% increase in snaps. Let’s hope it was a sophomore slump.

Play Of The Year – Minkah Fitzpatrick Fourth Quarter Pass Break Up Versus Ravens Week 18

Fourth quarter, thirty-one seconds left and the Ravens are on the thirty yard line.  With the range that Justin Tucker has, Baltimore just needs so get somewhere across the fifty to give them a chance at the game winning field goal to avoid overtime. Quarterback Tyler Huntley fires a ball to the Steelers forty-nine yard line right on the sideline. Marquise Brown looked like he was going to complete the play and that catch would give them the Ravens 25 seconds to get another ten yards or so for a realistic chance. Fitzpatrick raced to the sideline and with a perfectly placed right hand knocks out the ball. Without that play they may not win the game and reach the playoffs.

Coach Of The Year – Alfredo Roberts TE Coach

Vance McDonald retired and Eric Ebron, one year after a 56 catch season, was limited to 246 snaps and was out the most of the season. Stepping in to replace them are a second round rookie and a third year player who had just 69 offensive snaps and one career reception. Pat Freiermuth and Zach Gentry were able to take the place of the 2020 tight ends and even slightly improve on their numbers. Ebron and McDonald had 71 receptions for 657 yards and 5 touchdowns. Freiermuth and Gentry combined for 79 receptions 664 yards and 8 touchdowns. Roberts was able to get the two young players up to speed and helped them become a viable part of the offense.

2022 Player To Watch – Zach Gentry

He was a project coming into the NFL. He was a receiving tight end coming in and had to learn how to block. He hit the weight room and bulked up while improving his blocking technique and developed into an integral part of the offense.  The second half of the season you could see on film he was open a lot. Other teams didn’t cover him. Why should they cover a guy so rarely used?  It wasn’t until late in the season that he started getting regular targets. He led the tight ends and was fifth on the team in yards per reception (8.8) on the season. Over the last four games he had 15 targets, 13 receptions and 103 yards.  Over a 17 game season that would be 64 targets, 55 receptions and 438 yards. He could be valuable next year in a run heavy, 12 personnel offense.  Now if we could just get him some red zone targets.

Best FA Addition / Trade / Practice Squad Poaching – Ahkello Witherspoon

There were several candidates to consider here but Witherspoon made the biggest impact down the stretch.  He managed to lead the team in interceptions and tie for the team lead in pass break ups despite having just four starts and significant playing time in just 7 games. He was tested by opposing quarterbacks early in his playing time and did so well they started to avoid throwing his way later in the season.  My only question is why did it take so long to get him in there?

Most Missed  – Stephon Tuitt

The defense lost a lot of players over the course of the season but unfortunately Tuitt never played a down.  He had an injury along with the loss of his brother that kept him off the field.  The bookend to Cam Heyward really came into his own last year with eleven sacks, forty-five tackles, twenty-five quarterback hits and ten tackles for a loss. He had made himself into and upper level defender in recent years and was to be relied upon to be a major cog in the defensive front. The defensive numbers especially against the run would have been better with him. I’m hoping he wants to come back next year.

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