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Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 Postseason Awards, Part 1

With the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers season over, it is time to take a look at who was able to win some postseason awards.

NFL: JAN 03 Browns at Steelers Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Back in September, I published a pair of two-part essays, giving my take on the Steelers-specific awards predictions, including a series of polls for Steelers Nation to weigh in. A follow-up appeared in November, and Steeler Nation responded. Now that the 2021 season has concluded, and we can look at the year as a whole, it’s time for one more round.

This article will close the door on Part 1, featuring traditional awards, such as MVP or Rookie of the Year. Later, I’ll post Part 2, with more-invented categories to argue about. I’ll include my preseason and midseason predictions, as well as the fan favorites, and then my updated choices, and a poll.

In any case, please make arguments, leave suggestions, and otherwise hash this out in the comments. On with the show. Go Steelers.

Here’s the shorthand version (with my picks). Explanations and polls to follow.

MVP: T.J. Watt
Offensive POY: Ben Roethlisberger
Defensive POY: T.J. Watt
Rookie of the Year: Najee Harris
Newcomer of the Year: Ahkello Witherspoon
Comeback/Improved POY: Chris Wormley
Breakout Player: Pat Freiermuth
Assistant Coach of the Year: Chris Morgan
Game of the Year: Browns, Wk 16
Play of the Year: Joe Haden’s game saving tackle vs Tennessee


Most Valuable Player

Preseason Winner: Ben Roethlisberger (55%)
My Preseason Vote: Ben Roethlisberger

Midseason Winner: T.J. Watt (81%)
My Midseason Vote: T.J. Watt

Poll

Most Valuable Player

This poll is closed

  • 86%
    T.J. Watt
    (471 votes)
  • 1%
    Najee Harris
    (8 votes)
  • 5%
    Cam Heyward
    (29 votes)
  • 0%
    Minkah Fitzpatrick
    (4 votes)
  • 5%
    Ben Roethlisberger
    (29 votes)
  • 0%
    Other
    (1 vote)
542 votes total Vote Now

My Postseason Pick: T.J. Watt

There really isn’t much to say about this. Watt is the best player on the Steelers. He’s the best defensive player in the NFL, and quite possibly the best overall player in the league. He tied (should have broken) one of the most difficult NFL records of the era, and did it despite missing two former teammates (Tuitt and Dupree) who used to free him up by occupying blockers. And the Steelers were 9-2 when he played at least 60% of the defensive snaps; 0-5-1 when he sat or exited with injury.

He won’t win NFL MVP because the league is obsessed with quarterbacks, but this is what an MVP looks like.


Offensive POY

Preseason Winner: Najee Harris (47%)
My Preseason Choice: Chase Claypool

Midseason Winner: Najee Harris (76%)
My Midseason Choice: Najee Harris

Poll

Offensive Player of the Year

This poll is closed

  • 20%
    Ben Roethlisberger
    (104 votes)
  • 67%
    Najee Harris
    (341 votes)
  • 6%
    Diontae Johnson
    (32 votes)
  • 4%
    Pat Freiermuth
    (23 votes)
  • 0%
    Other
    (4 votes)
504 votes total Vote Now

My Postseason Choice: Ben Roethlisberger

Lots of people will probably disagree on this one, but for me, it’s still Big Ben. Najee Harris was the engine of the offense this year. But Ben was the driver. His numbers don’t jump off the page, but he kept the Steelers in games every week, playing absolutely lights-out in the second halves and fourth quarters so many weeks. Ben led the league in 4th quarter comebacks and game-winning drives in his final year (just like he did in his rookie year). And the team rallied behind him late in the season.

Lots of people think the quarterback situation was a problem for this offense. I think if Ben had the offensive line that he had five years ago (and a couple fewer drops by his receivers), he’d have finished a lot more impressively. He’s my OPOY.


Defensive POY

Preseason Winner: T.J. Watt (79%)
My Preseason Choice: T.J. Watt

Midseason Winner: T.J. Watt (72%)
My Midseason Choice: T.J. Watt

Poll

Defensive Player of the Year

This poll is closed

  • 85%
    T.J. Watt
    (415 votes)
  • 12%
    Cam Heyward
    (62 votes)
  • 1%
    Minkah Fitzpatrick
    (5 votes)
  • 0%
    Joe Haden
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Terrell Edmunds
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Other
    (0 votes)
483 votes total Vote Now

My Postseason Pick: T.J. Watt

Please see above, re: MVP.

Also, I’m surprised how few options there are. Not because the D was really bad, but because most players missed time or played inconsistently, disappearing for long stretches. Cam Heyward is the only other person in the running in my book. Wild. That tells you something about this season...


Rookie of the Year

Preseason Winner: Najee Harris (72%)
My Preseason Choice: Najee Harris

Midseason Winner: Najee Harris (76%)
My Midseason Choice: Najee Harris

Poll

Rookie of the Year

This poll is closed

  • 86%
    Najee Harris
    (406 votes)
  • 12%
    Pat Freiermuth
    (58 votes)
  • 1%
    Dan Moore
    (6 votes)
  • 0%
    Tre Norwood
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Kendrick Green
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Other
    (0 votes)
471 votes total Vote Now

My Postseason Pick: Najee Harris

Pat Freiermuth gave Najee a run for his money at various points. But Harris did tremendous things as a rookie. He broke Pittsburgh rookie records set by Franco Harris (rushing yards: 1200) and Le’Veon Bell (yards from scrimmage: 1667). He was fourth in the league in rushing, yards from scrimmage, and all-purpose yards. He led the league with 381 touches and set an NFL rookie record for touches without a fumble (in the regular season). And he somehow manufactured 663 yards after contact (third in the league), and 30 broken tackles (second in the league).

Najee is the real thing. And he’s a rookie star.


Newcomer of the Year

Preseason Winner: Joe Schobert (53%)
My Preseason Choice: Joe Schobert

Midseason Winner: Pat Freiermuth (77%)
My Midseason Choice: Pat Freiermuth

Poll

Newcomer of the Year

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    Joe Schobert
    (13 votes)
  • 60%
    Pat Freiermuth
    (283 votes)
  • 27%
    Ahkello Witherspoon
    (126 votes)
  • 8%
    Montavius Adams
    (40 votes)
  • 0%
    Tre’ Thomas
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Taco Charleton
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Other
    (1 vote)
464 votes total Vote Now

My Postseason Pick: Ahkello Witherspoon

Witherspoon was the most surprising figure on the team all year, for me. In fact, he could win this award and the next two (most improved and breakout player). Witherspoon started off his Steelers career looking like a bust — he saw four defensive snaps in the first 11 weeks of the year, and still managed to get burned by the Raiders’ Henry Ruggs for a 61 yard touchdown. That was week 2. He didn’t even get a helmet again until the week 11 loss to the Chargers. But two weeks later, he started against Baltimore, and seemed like a revelation after that.

Despite starting that slow opening, and only four starts, Witherspoon wound up leading the Steelers in interceptions, INT return yards, and passes defensed. Less discussed is that he led the league (yes, the league) in lowest completion percentage allowed (37.8%) and quarterback rating against (35.1), among qualified players. (For real. Check it out.) That’s stunning.


Comeback/Improved POY

Preseason Winner: Devin Bush (71%)
My Preseason Choice: Devin Bush

Midseason Winner: Diontae Johnson (72%)
My Midseason Choice: Diontae Johnson

Poll

Comeback/Improved Player of the Year

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    Devin Bush
    (14 votes)
  • 44%
    Diontae Johnson
    (200 votes)
  • 43%
    Chris Wormley
    (196 votes)
  • 2%
    Taco Charleton
    (13 votes)
  • 6%
    Other
    (30 votes)
453 votes total Vote Now

My Postseason Pick: Chris Wormley

* Note: Witherspoon has an argument here, but since he wasn’t on the Steelers in 2020, and got so little playing time in the first 10 weeks, he doesn’t seem like a “comeback” player to me. So I pulled him from this list. *

Chris Wormley gets my vote here. Wormley was a part of that dreadful run defense, but I have a hard time blaming him. For a man who wasn’t supposed to start, and who hadn’t done much in his previous Steelers career, Wormley flashed this year more than once. His 7.0 sacks were much more than I expected. But also, his 51 tackles, 10 QB Hits, and six TFLs were important for a struggling team. He wasn’t a star — and I often said this year that the defense would have taken a huge leap forward if Stephon Tuitt would have ever come back (so that’s not a ringing endorsement). But in terms of improvement and exceeding expectation, Wormley was the most improved, in my opinion.


Breakout Player

Preseason Winner: Alex Highsmith (51%)
My Preseason Choice: Alex Highsmith

Midseason Winner: Pat Freiermuth (48%)
My Midseason Choice: Alex Highsmith

Poll

Breakout Player of the Year

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    Alex Highsmith
    (77 votes)
  • 2%
    Chris Wormley
    (12 votes)
  • 13%
    Akhello Witherspoon
    (58 votes)
  • 4%
    Montravius Adams
    (18 votes)
  • 2%
    J.C. Hassenauer
    (9 votes)
  • 49%
    Pat Freiermuth
    (216 votes)
  • 10%
    Najee Harris
    (44 votes)
  • 0%
    Other
    (3 votes)
437 votes total Vote Now

My Postseason Pick: Pat Freiermuth

Man, I’d like to give this award to Montravius Adams, who came out of nowhere and might have become a long-term solution at an important position. But I just can’t call him “breakout.” Najee Harris and Ahkello Witherspoon both have legit cases here too. But I’m going to spread the wealth. And that means this award lands on the most reliable receiver of the 2022 season, Pat Freiermuth.


Assistant Coach of the Year

Preseason Winner: Matt Canada (53%)
My Preseason Choice: Adrian Klemm

Midseason Winner: Adrian Klemm (32%); Karl Dunbar (29%)
My Midseason Choice: Adrian Klemm

Poll

Assistant Coach of the Year

This poll is closed

  • 21%
    Chris Morgan (interim OL)
    (80 votes)
  • 16%
    Karl Dunbar (D Line)
    (62 votes)
  • 29%
    Alfredo Roberts (TE)
    (113 votes)
  • 16%
    Teryl Austin (DB)
    (62 votes)
  • 11%
    Keith Butler (DC/OLB)
    (43 votes)
  • 5%
    Other
    (20 votes)
380 votes total Vote Now

My Postseason Pick: Chris Morgan

Does this seem mean-spirited? I picked Adrian Klemm twice this year (and you guys picked him with me mid-season), so maybe I’m a little salty with how the O-Line fell off late in the season. But I couldn’t help noticing how much stronger the Steelers looked on offense when Morgan took over, rushing for 190 yards against Cleveland, and then surviving Baltimore with Najee Harris missing most of the game (and still only allowing one sack of Ben in 44 drop backs). Immediately after taking over, Morgan supposedly invited running backs and wide receivers to O-line meetings, which may have contributed to the improvement.

Also affecting this my choice is that most of the remaining position coaches look kind of weak to me. Karl Dunbar made lemonade while missing two thirds of his all-star line, but the rush defense was dreadful. Teryl Austin coached up a bunch of newcomers, but the secondary was hardly standout this year (Steelers DBs had only two interceptions through the season’s first 10 weeks). Keith Butler got quite a performance out of T.J. Watt in his capacity as OLB coach, but his DC results were pretty mixed overall. And while the tight ends looked good this year, let’s admit: most of us didn’t even know Afredo Roberts’ name until today.

It’s Morgan for me. In an odd year.


Game of the Year

Preseason Winner: vs. Ravens, wk 13 (35%); vs. Chiefs, wk 16 (29%)
My Preseason Choice: vs. Browns, wk 8

Midseason Winner: vs. Ravens, wk 18 (39%); vs. Ravens, wk 13 (37%)
My Midseason Choice: vs. Ravens, wk 13

Poll

Game of the Year

This poll is closed

  • 15%
    vs. Bills, wk 1
    (60 votes)
  • 3%
    vs. Browns, wk 8
    (12 votes)
  • 5%
    vs. Ravens, wk 13
    (20 votes)
  • 8%
    vs. Titans, wk 15
    (33 votes)
  • 35%
    vs. Browns, wk 16
    (134 votes)
  • 31%
    vs. Ravens, wk 17
    (121 votes)
  • 0%
    Other
    (2 votes)
382 votes total Vote Now

My Postseason Pick: vs. Browns, wk 17

This is a crazy season. I don’t think I had a single game where I felt confident at the gun. The Steelers beat possibly the two best teams in the AFC (Buffalo and Tennessee), and they swept the Ravens and Browns. Any of those games could count as game of the year. But there was only one game this season that could possibly be game of the year for me:

Ben’s farewell to Heinz Field, with a thrilling win over the Browns, is it. Period. Najee Harris went for a spectacular 188 yards; T.J. Watt exploded for 4.0 sacks; and the fans chanted, “thank you, Ben.” Hallelujah. That’s the season.


Play of the Year

No Preseason Pick

Midseason Winner: Pat Freiermuth’s juggling touchdown vs. Cleveland (37%); T.J. Watt’s overtime strip sack vs. Seattle (33%)
My Midseason Choice: T.J. Watt’s overtime strip sack vs. Seattle

Poll

Play of the Year

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    Pat Freiermuth’s juggling touchdown vs Cleveland (wk 8)
    (17 votes)
  • 10%
    T.J. Watt’s overtime strip-sack vs Seattle (wk 6)
    (40 votes)
  • 12%
    Joe Haden’s game saving tackle vs Tennessee (wk 15)
    (48 votes)
  • 3%
    Najee Harris’s devastating stiff-arm vs Cleveland (wk 16)
    (12 votes)
  • 10%
    T.J. Watt blows-up the 2pt conversion to end game vs Baltimore (wk 13)
    (39 votes)
  • 1%
    Myles Killebrew blocks punt and UGIII returns it for TD vs Bills (wk 1)
    (5 votes)
  • 9%
    T.J Watt ties NFL record in sacks vs Baltimore (wk 18)
    (38 votes)
  • 2%
    Cam Heyward makes big-guy interception vs Bears (wk 9)
    (10 votes)
  • 15%
    Ben Roethlisberger to RayRay McCloud on 4th and 9 in overtime vs Baltimore (wk 18)
    (60 votes)
  • 18%
    Ben Roethlisberger gets one last kneel-down at home vs Browns (wk 17)
    (71 votes)
  • 9%
    Chris Boswell hits 36 yard field goal with 1:56 left in overtime to send Steelers to playoffs, vs Baltimore (wk 18)
    (37 votes)
  • 1%
    Other
    (4 votes)
381 votes total Vote Now

My Postseason Pick: Joe Haden’s game saving tackle vs Tennessee

Good luck with this one. These were all “play of the year” worthy.

My heart says it’s Ben’s final kneel-down. My sense of history says it’s T.J. getting the record. The movie director in me says it’s Boz hitting that field goal to send the Steelers to the dance.

But the football guy in me (especially the one who says, “this team needs fundamentals”) says it’s Joe Haden’s tackle. It was smart, perfectly field-aware, physical, and technically sound, and it came at one of the biggest moments of the year, putting the nail in the coffin of the conference’s #1 seed. I have a feeling my choice won’t win, but it was my play of the year.


Okay, part two coming tomorrow.