Can Pittsburgh Defend Its Title?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are the defending Super Bowl champions, but if the NFL season ended today they would not even be in the playoffs. At 6-6, their chances of winning the AFC North seem slim. Cincinnati just needs a win against the Vikings to clinch the division Sunday.

The Steelers' playoff aspirations will take a serious hit if they do not win against Cleveland tonight. They are currently just one game back from Jacksonville in the Wild Card standings, but I don't think a 9-7 record will be good enough to win that race. According to Football Outsiders, the Steelers have a 10.4% chance of making the playoffs.

How has Pittsburgh ended up in this situation? A team renowned for its defense now has an elite quarterback, and yet they have somehow regressed. After posting a -2.2 DVOA in 2008, Ben Roethlisberger has a career best DVOA of 27.5 thus far in 2009. He has gone from a below average player to one of the ten best players at his positions in one season. Shouldn't this make the Steelers and their perennially dominant defense unbeatable?

Get the answer to all the Steelers' problems after the jump...

Let's take a quick look at Pittsburgh's Team Efficiency Ratings for 2008 and 2009. You can find these and many other great statistics at Football Outsiders. If you're not in the mood to click over and poke around yourself, here is a quick table with all of the info:

DVOA

Total

Offense

Defense

S.T.

2008

29.6

3.7

-26.9

-1.1

2009

14.5

17.3

-2.2

-5

 

Notice anything?

The Steelers' defense has gone from best in the league to 10th. Special teams have been even worse. They are currently ranked 31st after finishing 23rd in 2008. So while their offense has been greatly improved, Pittsburgh has taken a step backwards in the other two phases of the game.

I think the most important point here is that the defense is not as good as it has been in years past. The most glaring difference between this season and last, has been the absence of Troy Polamalu. After injuring his knee in Week 1, Polamalu has only been able to play in five games all year.

Last season the defensive secondary was great, as the Steelers led the league in best pass defense DVOA (31%). However, the defense has posted a below average pass defense DVOA of 4.8%. Pittsburgh is second in the league with 38 sacks, so getting pressure on the quarterback has not been an issue.

The problem has been their increased tendency to give up big plays in the passing game. They are allowing an average of 2.75 completions of over 20 yards each game, in 2008 that number was only 1.4. Essentially, they are giving up twice as many explosive plays without Troy Polamalu as the starting safety. The most telling statistic in this situation may be good old fashioned wins and losses. The Steelers are 4-0 in games where Troy has played the majority of defensive snaps, and 2-6 when he has been out injured.

The bad news for Pittsburgh is that Polamalu may end up missing the rest of 2009 with his injured posterior cruciate ligament. When asked what it would take for him to play again this season, Troy responded, "A whole lot of feeling. A whole lot of prayers. God willing, hopefully, I'll be able to play. We'll see what the doctor says."

The good news is that they are playing the hapless Browns, who have lost a league worst seven consecutive games. If Pittsburgh is going to have a chance of defending their title in the playoffs they'll need to start a streak of their own, and it has to start with a win Thursday night.

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