Steelers get love and snubs from PFF Top 101 Players of 2015

Dec 13, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) looks on prior to the play against the Cincinnati Bengals in the second half at Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers won 33-20. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 13, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) looks on prior to the play against the Cincinnati Bengals in the second half at Paul Brown Stadium. The Steelers won 33-20. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports /

The Steelers, or several of them, have made it onto the Pro Football Focus Top 101 players of 2015, but there is a strange absence or two.

The Steelers have 3 players make the PFF list of the top 101 players of 2015. Those three players are Antonio Brown, Ben Roethlisberger, and James Harrison. Let’s take a minute to put this all in context.

First, PFF uses a very mysterious method of evaluating players that supposedly takes into account all aspects of the game. It measures the unmeasurables. In measuring these unmeasurables however there is a human element involved such that it is not unreasonable to question these stats.

But they are valuable. There is a lot of work that goes into it. So consider the PFF scores, but do not assume they are the definitive truth of the players game.

The list is also of the best players of 2015. That means no Le’Veon Bell. That also means a number of players will be held back by injury. Pouncey is another who might be on this list but for injury.

Quick sidebar though: With 101 players and 32 teams that means the average team should have about 3 players on the list. The Steelers do. But the Steelers are not the average team. Only 4 teams made it further than they did. This puts us in the awkward position of having to make sense of the 6-8 Dolphins having 5 players on the list.

Well, it kind of implies that Ben and Brown carried the Steelers last year, that they’re so good they make up for all the other junk on the team. Which is obviously debatable, and we will debate it when we talk about the snubs, but who got the love first?

Here’s the lucky 3 for you.

Antonio Brown was the highest ranked Steeler. This shouldn’t be particularly surprising. Toward the end of last year analysts began saying Antonio Brown should be part of the MVP conversation. At this point in his career Brown is unstoppable. No WR was ranked higher.

And that’s why he was the 2nd overall player too (behind Rams DT Aaron Donald, the greatest player in football apparently).

PFF said of Antonio Brown:

"2. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers (7)The best wide receiver in the game right now, Antonio Brown is simply unstoppable against any conventional coverage. Broncos CB Chris Harris Jr. hadn’t allowed a touchdown for 36 straight games before facing Brown in Week 15—the Steelers wideout grabbed two TDs in Harris’ coverage that game. Brown isn’t a physical specimen in the way some of the NFL’s top receivers are, but excels at every fundamental aspect of the position. He earned the highest grade for a wideout PFF has ever given, and was only slowed down when the Steelers lost Ben Roethlisberger to injury and were forced to play Landry Jones and Michael Vick. Had Brown been paired with Roethlisberger all season, his stats project out as 158 catches for 2,114 yards and 15 touchdowns; the first two of those three numbers would be all-time single-season records.Best performance: Week 9 versus Oakland: +8.5Key stat: Brown’s cumulative overall season grade of +36.1 was the highest for any NFL WR in the PFF era (since 2007)."

Ben Roethlisberger was the next Steeler on the board. He is another player that, like Brown, if absent would have very much strained the credibility of this list. Ben had another amazing season. It’s an interesting contrast, him evolving from a haphazard, run around, improvising young guy to now being this elder pocket passer who dissects a defense with his mind. But he still gets out of the pocket and has some fun.

Only Newton, Brady, and Palmer were ranked higher. I’m not sure about Palmer though, maybe it didn’t factor in playoff performances.

PFF said of Roethlisberger:

"24. Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers (36)But for missing time due to injury, we could have seen a season from Ben Roethlisberger that would have put him at the very sharp end of this list, because when he was on the field, he was excellent. His accuracy and efficiency throwing downfield was remarkable in 2015, completing 27 passes for 1,170 yards just on deep (20+ air yards) passes over the regular season. In his two postseason games, he added another three such completions for 105 yards, orchestrating one of the league’s most dangerous passing attacks.Best performance: Week 13 versus Indianapolis: +8.5Key stat: Roethlisberger was accurate on 50.0 percent of his deep throws, second-best in the NFL."

James Harrison made it on too. This one surprised me a bit, and it might even be generous. James Harrison is a great player, still. He’s still an essential contributor to the Steelers team. When he’s on the field he is one of the top outside linebackers in the league. Harrison can play the run, can rush the pass, and is their best coverage OLB as well.

But he’s not always on the field. Harrison has been ranked well in many offseason lists but as good as his performance is when he’s on the field, I’m not sure he should be on this list when other Steelers players who play twice as many snaps are not.

PFF said of James Harrison:

"92. James Harrison, OLB, Pittsburgh Steelers (unranked)At this point you have to begin to wonder if Harrison is legitimately ageless. A perennial underdog story, Harrison is now 37 years old and is still the best pass-rusher on the Steelers’ defense. He notched 48 total pressures, but also a strong grade against the run, and in all honesty shows no sign of truly declining despite his advanced age. If anything he ended the season stronger than he began it, with a sack in each of the Steelers’ two postseason games.Best performance: Week 5 at San Diego: +7.1 gradeKey stat: Harrison had the third-highest run-stop percentage for 3-4 OLBs at 9.0"

So here we are at the end. Time to air some grievances. Where is Cam Heyward and David DeCastro? I could probably make a reasonable case for a William Gay perhaps or a Kelvin Beachum. You could make a case for Martavis Bryant  and the ever ignored Lawrence Timmons too.

One would think DeAngelo Williams is someone who definitely could have been on the back end of this list. Adam Jones was player 101 on this list. I can’t help but feel Williams was a much more vital player in the league’s most dangerous offense than Jones was on the 20th ranked pass defense.

Regardless, I want to focus on the big two because in my view they’ve been snubbed by rankers for a couple years now.

David DeCastro should be on this list because he’s the best guard out in space in the entire league. DeCastro can run block and pass block with the best of them. He’s got good athleticism and great strength. He’s very smart but is a mauler too. But DeCastro can pull and trap like he’s a high school guard playing in a wing-T.

In a league that emphasizes size and physical makeup in young offensive linemen it is rare that you find a player with such spatial awareness on the offensive line. He made his first Pro Bowl last year, and he was first team All Pro. People are finally realizing how great DeCastro is, but it might take the PFF algorithm some more time to catch up.

Cameron Heyward is the other player who deserved to be listed. He’s quite simply the best player on the defense. Heyward put together 7 sacks and 15 tackles for loss last year. As a 3-4 defensive end those stats aren’t easy to come by. Heyward doesn’t get the respect he deserves but in the coming years he and Tuitt could be too good to ignore.

Consider also the fact that Heyward never left the field. When the Steelers went to a nickel he would play defensive tackle, or he also acted as an end when there were four defensive linemen. The guy is the anchor of the Steelers defense and has been the one of the twin pillars, along with Timmons, around which the Steelers have rebuilt their defense.

PFF is ever the mystery to football fans. It’s a desired source of complete numerical evaluation, or as close as we have to that. It’s interesting, and often serves to verify what we’ve witnessed on the field or it makes us reconsider what we do think by factoring in parts of the game we often don’t notice.

Next: Steelers: A look at the RB position

But it’s not perfect. So congratulations to the Steelers that made the list but it seems clear to me that the absence of DeCastro and Heyward suggests that if a Steeler isn’t on the list they shouldn’t lose sleep over it.