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Steel Curtain Sound-Off: T.J. Watt’s NFL MVP candidacy, Ben Roethlisberger for OC & more ahead of Week 13

This week, we’re reimagining the NFL honors, discussing Joey Porter Jr.’s career prospects, and romanticizing inside linebackers.

Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt (90) sacks Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Jake Browning (6) in a game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals at Paycor Stadium on Sunday, November. 26, 2023. Photo by Jeff Moreland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’ve journeyed through the irradiated morass of the comments section here at Behind The Steel Curtain dot com, and I return with your takes (...and respond).

“Personally, if T.J. Watt breaks the sack record with the down QB year, I think he should be considered for MVP.” – Steel34Defense

Oh yeah, let’s turn this up, Watt currently has +20000 odds (200/1) to win NFL MVP on DraftKings Sportsbook. For context, Josh Dobbs’ MVP odds are at +15000, even after his participation in that abysmal game against the Bears on Monday Night Football where he threw four interceptions. The current MVP frontrunner (and probable winner), Jalen Hurts, has nearly even-money odds.

In plain language, this means that T.J. Watt will NOT win the NFL MVP award, nor will any other defensive player — not this year, and probably not ever again.

This is largely because “most valuable” is—and long has been—a misnomer. What the MVP award should reflect is a contribution so manifestly and self-evidently vital to the team’s success that the absence of that contribution would have directly precipitated some sort of plainly deleterious outcome.

What the NFL MVP award actually reflects is which quarterback had the best season. The Associated Press has taken what should be a notably prestigious honor with nuanced and heterogeneous selection criteria and restricted it to a single position group. This is, in my opinion, catastrophically stupid and deeply unfair.

None of this is to suggest that Hurts is not an eminently deserving MVP candidate. One could argue that Hurts is the product of a system, but my counterpoints would be that a) every good quarterback should be the product of a system, because good coaches should configure their systems in a way that maximizes their quarterback’s talents and mitigates any deficiencies (the Ravens and 49ers are exemplars of this) and b) Hurts is the system, and he is what underpins the Eagles offensive dynamism, not the other way around. Hurts is built like tactical assault vehicle, throws the ball a mile with laser-guided precision, and runs the Eagles offense with a telegenic efficiency that surpasses the visual appeal of virtually every other NFL offense. Moreover, the Eagles are 10-1. Hurts should win MVP.

However, everything I just wrote about Hurts and his vitality to the Eagles offense applies to T.J. Watt and his presence within the Steelers defense. When Watt isn’t transmogrifying into the offensive backfield and creating quarterback-sized craters in the field turf, he’s collapsing pockets and pressuring opposing quarterbacks into bad throws, smacking passes out of midair, and drawing attention that could otherwise be paid to Alex Highsmith or whoever else is rushing the passer. He is both singularly disruptive and capable of elevating the play of his teammates. He is as valuable as any defender in the NFL (and if you stumbled upon this blog as a fan of another team and scoff at the apparent homer-ism, Myles Garrett and Micah Parsons are similarly deserving of MVP consideration).

I propose solving this (entirely manufactured) conundrum by changing how certain awards are defined. The NFL is unique from other sports in that players are foisted into positional binaries, so an award that is ostensibly open to everyone but only gets awarded to one position group on one side of the ball should be banished to the shadow realm. What I’m getting around to saying is that we should keep the Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year awards but implement offensive and defensive MVP awards on top of those. The POY awards can be more statistics-focused, whereas discussions about “most valuable” should demand a more holistic perspective.

If I were to award these theoretical honors today, I’d go:

  • Offensive MVP: Jalen Hurts
  • Defensive MVP: T.J. Watt
  • Offensive Player of the Year: Christian McCaffrey
  • Defensive Player of the Year: Deron Bland

Otherwise, we can apply semantic analysis to “valuable”, narrow the lens, and just give the MVP to the most singularly valuable player in the entire NFL, regardless of circumstances. Therefore, congratulations Patrick Mahomes, this year and every other year until your retirement.

“Consistency for Kenny is the biggest issue. Loved the rhythm he played with against the Bengals but the accuracy still waned on throws. Even throws that he completed/could have completed needed some better ball placement.

I think part of that is not trusting his players to see the same thing. It is crazy how well he places the ball when throwing to Muth [Pat Freiermuth]. Very obvious that those two are on the same page.

There is obvious hesitancy throwing to the wide receivers, though, which has him just a tick late and/or on anticipation throws — the placement not ideal.”Steel34Defense

We are double-dipping into Steel34Defense’s takes this week. I am fine with this, because Steel34Defense is one of the most thoughtful and insightful commenters on this site. When they post, I perk up and set aside the requisite time to read their analysis in full, and I’d recommend you do likewise. Their commentary informs my perspectives and understanding about X’s and O’s and makes me feel more familiar with concepts that minutes ago might as well have been a foreign language.

Anyway, fawning and effusive praise aside, are we sure the apparent disconnect between Kenny Pickett and the receivers is entirely a familiarity thing? A week ago, I’d have answered in the affirmative with resounding conviction, but after watching Pat Freiermuth feast voraciously on the Bengals' shoddy defense, I’m kind of wondering if the incongruity between Pickett’s report with Freiermuth and his report with the wide receivers is less logistical and more…corporeal? Maybe the ideal placement of Pickett’s throws when targeting Freiermuth resulted from Pickett throwing at a larger, slower target, not unlike tossing a beach ball into the ocean from the shoreline.

I am not joking. I read the comments and am well aware that you’re all pretty over being bombarded with unrelenting Kenny Pickett slander (among other things), so I don’t intend to relitigate all that in this space, but one genuine criticism I have for Pickett is that at times he seems to get overwhelmed by the speed of the game, which has been manifested in him making hurried, inaccurate throws that probably could’ve been delivered right on the money had he been afforded a bit more time to see everything unfold. So, I wonder if Freiermuth running marginally slower routes may have provided Pickett with some measure of equilibrium.

“The guy’s resume before he got here was middling at best and his NFL tenure will go down as one of the most incompetent in the history of the league. The fact that this guy spent the entire time acting like the smartest person in every room he was in is laughable. Either he’s shockingly delusional and narcissistic or he’s been a straight-up con man this entire time…like many of us suggested. Maybe it’s both? Either way good riddance. I’d say I doubt he’s ever getting hired again but if nothing else he sure seems to interview well, so who knows.” – JV2K13

“The guy” in question is, of course, former offensive coordinator Matt Canada. I don’t put much stock into armchair psychoanalysis, but even if Canada is delusional and narcissistic, it isn’t like he’d be the first coach to bear those hallmarks. I’ve written on this site before that every single NFL coach, even ones as disparate in personality as Bill Belichick and Mike McDaniel, are united in weaponizing their megalomania into a profession. Offensive coaches in particular seem to get branded as savants the first time they draw up a shovel pass to the tight end on 3rd-and-2, so it makes sense that Canada would strive to maintain the same veneer of intellect that gets afforded to his peers. This probably also explains his reluctance to deviate from his system even despite its steadfast infectiveness; no one wants to admit when they’re wrong, especially if doing so might make them look stupid.

I also don’t believe that Canada is a con man or shrewd interviewer. The most recent win against the Bengals looks like a damning indictment of Canada and his grand design, but it’s also a relatively small sample size (and came against one of the worst defensive teams in the league). It isn’t like the Steelers are the 2007 Patriots. The best player on the Steelers offense is an undrafted free-agent running back and the second-best player is a receiver whose thorough and apparent disillusionment seems a mortal lock to portend a trade request this offseason (to whom this part refers is open to your interpretation).

It’s difficult to determine the extent to which the Steelers’ general offensive ineptitude is obfuscating the true capacity of the skill position players. I can imagine Diontae Johnson on the receiving end of a Mahomes bomb or Freiermuth plucking a Trevor Lawrence pass off a safety’s helmet for his second touchdown of the game, but this is based almost entirely on the assumption that Pickett/Canada/whatever other usual suspects were the ones holding them back. It’s possible that the offense is comprised of middling or even below-average skill players. I don’t think this is the case, but I also don’t have enough evidence to conclusively say otherwise.

I don’t mean to throw on a cape for Matt Canada, either. His framework wasn’t working, and it was clear that a change needed to be made. I actually do think he’ll probably get hired again somewhere, potentially at the college level, which seems better suited to operating the kind of offense he wants to run.

“…can you and the rest get serious on this site. Big Ben has NEVER demonstrated any discipline or leadership during his career. He was on the record as saying he doesn’t throw a ball during the offseason — except with his son. During the beginning of his career, he was the last one in, and the first one out, according to teammates. More than once, he publicly through his teammates under the bus. Say all you want about his obvious QB skillset, but this guy is anything but a leader of men. NOT EVEN CLOSE. Your readers deserve more than this.”The Mighty Steeler Fan!

It behooves me to commend this reader for their (fair and largely accurate) criticism of Ben Roethlisberger even though I caught a major stray in the process. I’ve always thought of Big Ben as an exemplar of the love the work, hate the artist credo. By his own admission, he was critical of teammates to the point that it ruined personal and professional relationships, and he did spend the earlier parts of his career brandishing his celebrity and self-entitlement in myriad objectionable ways. Roethlisberger is a future Hall of Fame quarterback who played an indelible role in fostering and sustaining a run of success that spanned multiple decades. He is also someone for whom many people justifiably have complicated feelings. Two things can be true.

Like most responsible adults, though, Roethlisberger did seem to soften up once he had a family, and by all accounts; domestication suits him well. He is also impossibly wealthy. Even if he has come around to embracing the qualities that make someone a good leader, I cannot imagine any reality in which he welcomes a return to the NFL by way of a high-stress and largely thankless coaching position.

So, when you implore us to get serious about this kind of thing, I get it. You don’t want to read about a potential coaching replacement who almost assuredly has zero interest in taking the job. That is fine and reasonable. But at the same time, blogs like this languish under budgetary constraints that do not allow for original reporting, nor are they adherent to the sort of journalistic conventions to which the Post-Gazette or whatever must abide. Blogs represent a necessary escape from the institution of conventional sports journalism.

I choose to believe that this is what makes blogs unique and valuable. Innocent conjecture is fun! I saw a comment a few weeks ago suggesting the Steelers sign Matt Ryan. And Ryan Tannehill. You’re gonna see CBS Sports publish a mock draft that has the Steelers trading up for Sheduer Sanders. We’ll probably publish a supplementary article advocating for them to bring on Deion as OC. Everyone is going to be on the radar. It will be incredibly stupid, and I cannot wait. You won’t see the Post-Gazette or Time Magazine run those stories!

I can never do a full article about this, so I’ll proffer this take here: the Steelers should hire Andrew Luck to be the offensive coordinator. Whatever amount of money/artisanal bicycles it takes. Give him a map of every fishing location and bike path in Western Pennsylvania to sweeten the deal. I am being serious.

“If I were Tomlin, and I’m not, but I would bench Diontae Johnson for at least the first half if not the entire game this week. DJ’s attitude on the field on that play is really telling. I don’t care what he does on social media or whatever in his personal time. Between the lines on the field, it must be 100% effort all the time and not when the feels like it. I couple that with his “confrontation” with Minkah, and it’s looking like a release or a trade for DJ in the offseason.” – IronCladTheory

I get the impulse here, but this isn’t high school. Diontae Johnson gets paid a salary, so banishing him to the sidelines for 90 or so minutes is accomplishing little more than giving him some extra PTO. His lack of effort on the play the reader mentioned above was pretty galling, but it also struck me as out-of-character.

Johnson’s had numerous reasons to feel frustrated over the past couple of seasons, and he’s done a mostly solid job of compartmentalizing his animus (at least publicly). He’s also a professional; my guess would be that he very quickly realized the error of his ways, had a little chat with Tomlin in private, and subsequently smoothed things over with the rest of the team shortly thereafter.

Or I’m wrong and he’s six months out from going full Antonio Brown. I don’t know. It’s a blog.

“They could just keep Minkah on the sidelines in case he’s needed, I guess. I’m sure someone will claim that we’ll play down to the Cardinals and Patriots, but I just don’t see that being likely this time around. All four of our losses are to teams with winning records, and we’ve beaten all five teams that we’ve faced that have a losing record (though I guess all of those teams have at least four wins).” – FearTheBeard5559

I’m mostly of the opinion that nobody really punches down in the NFL because parity is so rampant. Any Given Sunday, etc. are overused platitudes, but they do tend to ring true. The worst NFL team is much closer to the best NFL team than they are to the best college team.

That all said, watching Patriots games in 2023 should be banned by the Geneva Convention. They are 100 points in the red in points differential. That they’ve won a single game, let alone two games, is nothing short of an actual Christmas miracle. The Cardinals are bad, too, but the Patriots are so utterly woebegone that Madden will ask “Are you sure?” if you select them to use in an online game. The Steelers should win both of these games, and if they can do so while correspondingly allowing Minkah Fitzpatrick extra time to recuperate, all the better.

“Joey Porter Jr. is already the Steelers’ best cornerback since Ike Taylor.” - aprimm

My brother in Cahhrr, you will stake your claim here and engage knowingly in Joe Haden erasure? This cannot stand. It will not.

I can recall, with 4K videographic clarity, all the little details from the afternoon Haden signed with the Steelers. The ambient noises, the temperature in my office, what the weather was like, the time it happened, who I texted thereafter, the clothes I was wearing. 9/11 is the only other event in which the particulars of the moment live so vividly in my subconscious.

Alas, The Mighty Steeler Fan! demanded seriousness, and I am in no position to brook dissent on this matter. Joey Porter Jr. is indeed the real deal. Cornerbacks are weird in that their overall value is generally lesser than edge defenders (and quite possibly interior defensive linemen, too) but truly elite cornerbacks are nearly always at a premium, which makes me wonder how Porter Jr. managed to slip into the second round of the draft in the first place. As it stands, Porter Jr. has the fifth-best odds to win defensive rookie of the year, and he’s among great company: Jalen Carter (as an aside, it is disgusting that the NFL allowed Carter to fall to the Eagles; he’s been a blue-chip prospect since he was in middle school and his draft stock was impacted entirely by nebulous “character” concerns), Devon Witherspoon, Will Anderson, and Brian Branch look like perennial All-Pros. So, for Porter Jr. to have ascended to these ranks despite not playing regularly until Week 6 is a glowing endorsement of his longer-term career prospects.

He needs to cut down on penalties, though.

“It’s clear that linebackers Elandon Roberts and Mykal Walker, as well as slot corner Chandon Sullivan, are the weak links in the Steelers pass defense.

Eh, maybe right now, but I’d slow down on this. Roberts is more of a thumper, granted, but he’s played pretty well the last couple weeks. I don’t want him doing a ton of coverage, but he’s an inside linebacker; I don’t want him doing a ton of coverage anyway. To put it another way: he’s not ryan shazier, but no one else is either.

I think we have to give walker a little more time to get used to the communication on the team. The Steelers ILBs looked lost in the opener against the 49ers too, but then little by little, Holcomb, Alexander, and Roberts all started playing faster and communicating better. It’s a crime that two of them are out, but there’s no reason to think walker can’t catch up too, given the same couple of weeks that the other guys got.” – cassidy977

It is fortunate that the Steelers defense has managed to excel—both this season and in past seasons—despite the absence of stability at that position. Off-ball linebackers have been aligned with running backs just above long-snappers and punters on the overall positional hierarchy, and there is validity to this arrangement in that stud middle linebackers—like stud running backs—can be uncovered on the second or third day of the draft and that virtually all teams tend to over-draft more “valuable” players like cornerbacks, receivers, and edge defenders.

But like running backs, the coolness of middle linebackers is rooted in their multitudinous and understated artistry. Fred Warner sashaying into the deep secondary with balletic precision, his hips firing back and forth like pistons, and swatting a would-be chunk play back to earth or Roquan Smith instantaneously triangulating the run path at the handoff, firing 20 yards toward the sideline in what feels like microseconds, and liquefying the running back’s musculature are plays that are just as captivating as a running back hunting out an open running lane, snaking through a mass of bodies, and emerging on the other side untouched and unimpeded on his foray to the end-zone. Middle linebackers doing cool and exciting things evokes memories of simpler times, back when running backs regularly won MVP awards and shoulder pads were as big as houses. We used to be a proper country.

I’m not sure I’m ready to red-pill myself into believing the Steelers should do something insane like draft an inside linebacker in the first round of the NFL Draft or throw a bunch of money at Patrick Queen or whoever in free agency. While I believe that having a linebacker pairing like the Ravens or 49ers would elevate the current (very formidable) iteration of the Steelers defense into a best-in-class unit, I also think the Steelers deftly navigated the linebacker situation by leveraging the component parts of Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, and Kwon Alexander to sort of Moneyball their way into a piecemeal version of Smith at a fraction of the cost. Holcomb and Alexander are out for the season, which complicates things a bit, but as Cass mentioned, there’s little evidence as it stands to suggest that Mykal Walker and whoever else can’t adequately fill those roles.