The Pittsburgh Steelers had a surprisingly good season in 2021. After starting 11-0 in 2020 and losing five out of their last six games (including playoffs), the Steelers were expected to drop off heavily. They lost several key players from last year’s star-studded roster, namely to other teams or to retirement. The Steelers still have plenty of holes that need to be filled after their 9-7-1 season; Pittsburgh did not address all of their looming problems last offseason. They unexpectedly made the playoffs this year but lost in the first round. The Steelers could not have gone on their late-season playoff run without the help of some of their star players.
The Top Ten Pittsburgh Steelers Players of 2021
The Steelers could not have had their success this season without the help of their stars. Many of their best players provided a boost in both performance and morale. Here are the Pittsburgh Steelers top ten players this season, in order:
1. EDGE T.J. Watt
T.J. Watt was the unanimous and undisputed number one player for Pittsburgh this year. The NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year racked up 22.5 sacks, which tied the record for most sacks in a single season. Watt also led the team in tackles for loss, quarterback hits, and pressures. His most impressive performances came in two key games, both of which were wins against division rivals. Watt collected 3.5 sacks in the Steelers’ home win against the Baltimore Ravens and had four sacks in the Steelers’ home win against the Cleveland Browns.
Watt dominated at the line of scrimmage and particularly excelled in one-on-one battles with opposing offensive linemen. He wreaked havoc on every opposing quarterback this season and is well-deserving of the top spot.
2. Running Back Najee Harris
Najee Harris was the Steelers best offensive player this season. The rookie running back totaled 1200 rushing yards on the year, which ranked fourth in the NFL. He was a workhorse for the Steelers, as he accumulated the most touches (rushes and receptions) of any player in the NFL, with 381. He was an excellent downhill runner and was very physical. He used his strength to his advantage and constantly broke defender’s tackles. He took on a very large workload and produced a top-five season as an NFL running back.
Harris was also a great tool in the Steelers passing game. He totaled 74 receptions for 467 yards and three touchdowns on the year. It is also worth noting that Harris set the record for the most consecutive touches without a fumble. Harris fumbled just one all season, which came in the team’s wild-card round loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Still, Harris’ excellent ball security and strength place him as one of the best running backs this season.
3. Defensive Lineman Cameron Heyward
Cam Heyward was the complement to T.J. Watt, as he was a consistent pass rusher on the other side of the line. Heyward had ten sacks in 2021, which was second on the team. Heyward was a disruptive force in the running game. He had the third-most tackles on the team (89) and was tied for second in tackles-for-loss (15). While Heyward was great in the rushing game, he also was a major factor in the Steelers pass defense. He was tied for first on the team for the most pass deflections with nine. He was constantly batting down passes at the line of scrimmage, which helped break up many potential completions.
His determination and hustle every play, despite being a bigger and older guy, proves his worth as a Steeler. His consistent performances in every game this season earned him a higher-up spot on the list this year. The All-Pro defensive end is well-deserving of a top-three spot on the list.
4. Kicker Chris Boswell
The value of kickers is rising in the NFL; with games constantly going down to the wire, many placekickers have delivered with clutch field goals in key moments. One of the top kickers in the NFL this season was Chris Boswell. Boswell made 36 out of 40 field-goal attempts this season, and also made 27 of his 29 extra points. His accuracy from 50+ yards was impressive; Boswell put through eight of his nine attempts from that range. He had three game-winning field goals, including one in Week 18 that sent the Steelers to the playoffs.
Many often undervalue kickers, but Boswell consistently put up three points for Pittsburgh when called upon. He truly did just as much as some of the other guys on this list. After signing his big contract back in 2018, he sure has proved his worth and has established himself as a top kicker in the NFL.
5. Wide Receiver Diontae Johnson
Diontae Johnson quietly had a very productive season at receiver. After dropping a league-high 16 passes last season, Johnson established himself as the number one receiver this season and had just three drops this year. He had 107 catches for 1,161 yards this season; those stats rank fifth and tenth in the NFL, respectively. His fast, elusive route running provided Ben Roethlisberger with some shorter, easier throws. Johnson also had eight touchdowns, which led all Steelers receivers this year. He made a quiet but booming impact on the Steelers offense, and his progress and achievements should not go unnoticed.
6. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick
Minkah Fitzpatrick did not have the “splash” season that he’s used to, but he still did well in coverage. He had five interceptions in 2019 and four in 2020 but had just two this year. But his impact was made in the coverage and run-stop game. Fitzpatrick, a free safety, surprisingly led the Steelers in tackles this year, with 124. He also forced one fumble and recovered another. Although he had a quiet season, he still put up some helpful numbers and was one of the leaders of the Steelers defense.
7. Tight End Pat Freiermuth
Pat Freiermuth immediately made an impact in his rookie year. He posted 60 catches for 497 yards and caught seven of Ben Roethlisberger’s 22 regular-season touchdowns. He was a red-zone threat with his big frame. Freiermuth also gained 34 first downs for the Steelers, as he fought through opposing secondaries for more yards. He was the second-best rookie tight end, behind only Kyle Pitts. He was a key addition in the draft and bolstered the Steelers offense with his incredible hands and his blocking ability.
8. Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon
Ahkello Witherspoon, who was acquired from the Seattle Seahawks a week before the season started, made a big impact in his first year in the Steelers secondary. Witherspoon had one of the highest coverage grades, according to PFF, and also was listed as one of the top overall defensive cornerbacks. He had three interceptions this season and made several other key plays. He batted down several passes and played sound defense. He is a free agent this offseason, and it is very likely that the Steelers will try to re-sign a top corner like Witherspoon.
9. EDGE Alex Highsmith
Alex Highsmith had a very impressive sophomore season. He made 74 tackles, including 15 for a loss. His six sacks put him fourth on the team in that category this season. Highsmith had great speed off the edge and quickly put pressure on quarterbacks. He had great elusiveness at the line, and he quickly got into the backfield to make his plays. He wasn’t talked about a whole lot this season, but he had an impact in the run stop every game this season and was among one of the best Steelers players.
10. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger
Ben Roethlisberger is deserving of the tenth and final spot on this season’s best player list. The two-time Super Bowl champion Roethlisberger played consistently at quarterback in his 18th year. He threw for 3,955 yards (reg. season + playoffs) and had 25 total touchdowns (24 passing, one rushing). He ranked 15th in both categories this season, despite having a lower passer rating and QBR. Dealing with a poor offensive line, Roethlisberger was able to get the ball to his playmakers, namely Diontae Johnson and Pat Freiermuth. Even though he has retired, Big Ben will forever have a lasting impact and legacy on the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Honorable Mention- Chris Wormley
Although Chris Wormley did not make the top ten, he still played well enough to deserve recognition. Wormley had seven sacks this season (third on the team), and also had 51 tackles, six of which were for a loss of yards. Wormley’s most impressive game came against his former team, the Baltimore Ravens, in Week 13; he had 2.5 sacks against them in the Steelers 20-19 victory. Wormley had an impressive season along the defensive line but unfortunately was not able to crack this year’s top Steelers players.
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