Even though the Steelers’ season is now in the books, the memories from Pittsburgh’s roller coaster year remain fresh.
Without further ado, here are the unofficial team awards for the Steelers’ 2015 campaign.
*Note: these awards were decided upon by me alone. This was not a collaborative vote.
Game of the Year: Steelers at Bengals, AFC Wild Card
What transpired on this gloomy Saturday night in Cincinnati will go down as one of the most shocking games in NFL history. Martavis Bryant‘s absurd catch, Ben Roethlisberger‘s heroics, Ryan Shazier‘s strip of Jeremy Hill, Vontaze Burfict’s stupidity in all its glory, Adam Jones taking Joey Porter‘s bait like a fish, Chris Boswell nailing the game-winning field goal in the rain… it was like a movie. And like most movies, the good guys won.
Cincinnati fans pelted Big Ben with trash as he was carted off. Burfict, among other violations, tried to decapitate Antonio Brown on the final drive. The Bengals had their first playoff victory in a quarter century in their hands, and they vomited it away thanks to their own idiocy. I don’t know if karma is real, but this game certainly made a convincing case.
Silencing the whiny, trashy players and fans of Cincinnati for their fifth straight playoff defeat? In this fashion? Pure ecstasy.
Play of the Year: Le’Veon Bell’s game-winner in San Diego
It’s hard to single out one play as best of the season. It’s even harder when there’s such good competition, namely the aforementioned Bryant hamstring catch. Week five’s Monday night win against the Chargers alone offered a handful of spectacular moments, but none were bigger than Le’Veon Bell‘s plunge for the goal line as time expired.
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Consider the circumstances. Mike Vick was starting at quarterback for the injured Roethlisberger and had been utterly ineffective aside from a few key highlights. The Steelers were fresh off a loss to the Ravens and unsure about Ben’s health moving forward.
Pittsburgh desperately needed a win here, and Bell somehow managed to get the ball across the plane on a play in which he had no business scoring.
Also, don’t forget: if the Steelers lost here, the playoffs never would’ve happened. Bell’s performance in week five had a lasting impact all season long.
Breakout Player of the Year: Alejandro Villanueva
Being an offensive lineman is the least glamorous position in all of sports. It’s also one of the toughest, and Villanueva, a man with no professional experience as a blocker, was stellar in relief of injured left tackle Kelvin Beachum this year.
Beachum was lost for the season in week six’s win over Arizona, abruptly forcing Villanueva into the starting lineup – at left tackle, no less, the most vital spot on the offensive line. The former Army Ranger had a few early hiccups, as expected, but his overall transition into the Steelers offensive line was seamless. Villanueva started every game on from week seven, and he’s steadily improved along the way.
Linemen don’t have an array of numbers that can be analyzed; in most cases, they either pass the eye test or don’t. Villanueva held down the left tackle spot very well, as the running and passing attacks saw no hindrance. Imagine if Mike Adams was in the same position…
Most Improved Player: Mike Mitchell
Remember 2014, when Mitchell was seemingly out of position on every snap? When he was always five feet away from the receiver in his zone? When he lowered his shoulder rather than going for a clean tackle?
OK, the last point still hasn’t been entirely fixed. But Mitchell’s progress in just one year as Pittsburgh’s free safety was a primary reason why this Steelers defense managed to survive despite otherwise anemic secondary play. Mitchell tallied a team-leading three interceptions this year (he had none in 2014) and two forced fumbles, a total of five turnovers – also highest on the team.
Mitchell’s comfort at free safety remarkably improved. He kept plays in front of him and was quick to drive to the ball on short plays. The majority of passes that the Steelers surrendered came on short and intermediate routes, which Mitchell cannot be blamed for. He should be a cornerstone player on this defense for years to come.
Team MVP (non-QB): Antonio Brown
Technicalities suck, I know. Antonio Brown has a case for Steelers MVP even with Roethlisberger taken into consideration. There’s a reason why quarterbacks are always winning the award, though, and Pittsburgh knows this too well. Without Ben, the Steelers offense loses all fluidity and confidence. In the games played without #7, Brown averaged only four catches for 59 yards, well below his usual production. Roethlisberger wins team MVP by default, but AB is as close as a non-QB can get.
Voted first-team All-Pro this season, Brown scorched defenses like only he can. Brown’s 284 receiving yards against Oakland in week nine puts him at 9th all-time on the NFL’s single-game receiving yards list. In sixteen regular season games started, Brown eclipsed the 100-yard mark ten times. In five of those games, he hauled in double digit passes. Nothing new here.
Brown’s hidden value comes in special teams. He is an electric punt returner, of course, but AB’s ball security is more important than anyone realizes. We all saw what happened in Denver a week ago as Markus Wheaton peed himself every time a punt flew his way. Having a reliable return man saves gobs of field position, a factor the Steelers painfully missed in the Divisional Round.
Even though the season didn’t end as hoped, the 2015 Steelers delivered quite the ride. Given the bevy of injuries, this team actually overachieved. These awards may be fictitious, but they’re still better than getting a “Grammy” from Adam Jones.
All stats used from Pro Football Reference.