Though it sure wasn’t pretty, the Pittsburgh Steelers managed to exceed the expectations of most and back their way into this year’s playoffs. In what was likely Ben Roethlisberger’s final season, the team went 9-7-1, which qualified them for the AFC’s seventh seed and a first-round drubbing at the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs. Still, there were a few bright spots for the Steelers as they look to start a rebuild, and those bright spots will be the focus of these 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers awards.
Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Season Team Awards
Most Valuable Player: T.J. Watt
It’s no surprise for the Steelers 2021 MVP to be T.J. Watt. His record-tying 2021 season speaks for itself and was the best season so far in what looks on track to be a Hall of Fame career. From a statistical standpoint, his campaign was as good as you’ll find. Despite missing two full games and several partial games, his 22.5 sacks were accompanied by a league-leading 21 tackles for loss, 39 QB hits, five forced fumbles, and seven pass deflections. Value goes beyond statistics, though. In games that Watt played more than 60% of snaps, the Steelers were 9-2. Conversely, in games that he missed entirely or played less than 60% of snaps, the team went 0-5-1. Of course, this is not a perfect statistic, as it would need to consider strength of opponents played. Still, it’s just one way to further quantify Watt’s value to the Steelers in 2021. He is a massive favorite to win the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award, which would be a well-deserved accolade to accompany a historic season.
Offensive Player of the Year: Najee Harris
A disappointing end to the season keeps this award from Diontae Johnson, with it instead going to standout rookie running back Najee Harris. Despite running behind a miserable offensive line, Harris showed loads of promise in his first NFL season. His 1,667 scrimmage yards, while of course aided by a league-leading 381 touches, showed that Harris is a number one, bell cow running back in every sense of the phrase. Harris’s best game came in Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns in a must-win game, when Harris racked up 212 yards and scored two touchdowns, capping off the emotional win with a season-long 37-yard touchdown run. Though they are on pace to run the wheels off Harris in a hurry, Pittsburgh’s number one off-season priority should be to strengthen the offensive line and really allow Harris to shine in year two.
Defensive Player of the Year: Cameron Heyward
To avoid duplicating Watt (and because this guy really deserves the recognition), Cameron Heyward rounds out the biggest of the 2021 Steelers awards with a DPOY nod. Like a fine wine, Heyward continues to age well, playing at a high enough level to earn his third first-team All-Pro honor in his 11th NFL season. Heyward’s 10 sacks on the year marked the second double-digit season of his career, and his career high 89 tackles showed that he was really doing everything in his power to carry a depleted defensive line. His nine pass deflections were also a career high, as swinging his big mitts in the air saved the Steelers from allowing a big play on multiple occasions. While he may run out of time, Cam Heyward is making a late push for Canton. A couple more years like 2021 paired with a few more All-Pro selections, and he will have a solid case.
Comeback Player of the Year: Diontae Johnson
The only true comeback player on the 2021 Steelers was Devin Bush, who simply wasn’t anywhere near good enough to earn any kind of award. Rather, Johnson gets the nod here, as he “came back” from leading the league in drops in 2020 to having a strong season as the Steelers top receiver. Despite the drops making an unfortunate return toward the end of the season, Johnson was incredibly productive, with 1,161 receiving yards and eight touchdowns on 107 receptions. Though he wasn’t selected, Johnson was definitely a Pro Bowl candidate. He is a masterful route runner, and if/when Johnson puts the drops to bed for good, he will be a true number one wide receiver.
Offensive Rookie of the Year: Pat Freiermuth
Once again to avoid a duplicate, Pat Freiermuth brings home the Steelers OROY award over Harris. Freiermuth put together a very promising rookie season, as he has built the fans’ hope that he might be the franchise tight end that Pittsburgh has been lacking since Heath Miller. “Muth” totaled 497 receiving yards on 60 receptions and added seven touchdowns. The yards per reception number of 8.3 is low, but that had way more to do with Roethlisberger’s skillset than Freiermuth’s. With a new quarterback in 2022, hopefully Pittsburgh can utilize Freiermuth over the middle and down the seam, where he is suited to do his best work. He’s also a solid run blocker, which will go a long way towards getting Harris some holes to run through next year and beyond.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Isaiahh Loudermilk
There really isn’t much of a Steelers defensive rookie class to assess. After their first four picks of the 2021 draft were used on offensive players, only Isaiahh Loudermilk and Tre Norwood played anything close to consistent snaps on defense. Loudermilk gets the nod, but it could go either way. While playing 29% of Pittsburgh’s defensive snaps, Loudermilk produced 23 tackles, three pass deflections, and a sack. Most importantly, the Steelers rush defense was statistically and visually stronger when Loudermilk was on the field. He will need to keep getting better as a pass-rusher, but his rookie season was a good enough start for Loudermilk to be a reliable rotational piece heading into the 2022 season.
Most Improved Player: Zach Gentry
It was nice to see Zach Gentry become a productive player in his third NFL season. His first two seasons were spent almost exclusively as a gameday inactive, but he was able to carve out a role in 2021. He only totaled 19 catches and 167 yards without scoring a touchdown, but Gentry showed that he can be a reliable wrinkle to an offense who wants to get creative. Most importantly, Gentry was an effective run blocker this year, something that definitely wasn’t expected of him when he was coming out of Michigan. Moving forward, Gentry can continue to be a solid second-fiddle tight end behind Freiermuth, and be productive when his number is called, even if he won’t blow anyone away.
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