By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts 1867 conestoga wagon invitational champion
With all due respect to Chris Berman, Jim Kelly and the 1991 vintage Buffalo Bills, nobody falls off the wagon like the Pittsburghh Steelers.
The 2006 defending champ Steelers fell off the wagon, thanks in large part to Ben Roethlisberger, who led by example when he fell off his motorcycle a few weeks before training camp. That team defended its title with an 8-8 record and a view of the playoffs from the comfort of their couches.
The 2009 defending champ Steelers are putting up even less of a fight, with a 6-7 record and a five-game losing streak after their 13-6 defeat Thursday night to arguably the worst Cleveland team in franchise history. It was a true disaster of a performance – at least in football terms – and it's now the organization's longest skid in six years.  
The Steelers lost on a day when the opposing passer, Brady Quinn, completed just 6 of 19 passes for 90 yards. They lost thanks to a healthy dose of Josh Cribbs and Chris Jennings, who gashed Pittsburgh for 160 yards on the ground, not to mention the game's only touchdown (Jennings).
The Steelers lost mostly, though, thanks to their own lethargy. At the risk of descending into sports-cliché tripe, Pittsburgh simply did not show up to play, moving at half speed in all facets of the game, especially on offense, where the entire team seemed to tank against one of the league's worst defenses.
Big Ben? He took more sacks than a potato farmer (eight), holding on to the ball behind an offensive line that showed a complete lack of concern for the health and well-being of their battered franchise quarterback.
Hines Ward, who committed the locker-room faux pas of calling out his own quarterback two weeks ago, didn't show up, either (4 catches, 21 yards). And the running game? Rashard Mendenhall took 16 handoffs but gained just 53 yards.
There's no doubt that a malaise has descended over the organization. Hell, the Browns, Raiders and Chiefs this year are 3-1 vs. the Steelers. They're 6-27 vs. everybody else.
And the blame game, of course, is in full throat Friday morning. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau are both the target for Steelers fan ire today, here and elsewhere.
But we decided to look, statistically, at what's gone wrong with the defending champs. It turns out that, despite the offensive lethargy Thursday night, Pittsburgh's problems this year are almost all on the defensive side of the football.
It's this unit that's performing well below the lofty standards it set during the Super Bowl run. The offense, meanwhile, is not good. But it's not a whole lot worse than it was last year.
Here's how the 2009 Steelers stack up against the 2008 champion Steelers in our Quality Stats. The 2009 numbers, for the purposes of this article, have been updated to including the Thursday night loss. So the numbers will be slightly different than the data that currently appears in our Quality Stats pages (which are accurate through the end of Week 13 action).
2009 – 22nd (16.95 Yards Per Point Scored)
2008 – 15th (14.38 Yards Per Point Scored)
Conclusion: The 2008 Steelers scored more efficiently than the 2009 Steelers, but in neither year were they particular proficient in this indicator.
2009 – 19th (15.67 Yards Per Point Allowed)
2008 – 4th (17.02 Yards Per Point Allowed)
Conclusion: Pittsburgh's defensive efficiency has declined dramatically this year. But remember, Bendability is not just a defensive indicator. It measures how all parts of the team are working together. And, clearly, Pittsburgh's various units are working together less effectively this year, making it easier for opponents to score points.
Passing Yards Per Attempt
2009 – 9th (6.93 YPA)
2008 – 20th (5.94 YPA)
Conclusion: You wouldn't know it from Thursday night's performance, but the 2009 Steelers actually pass the ball much more effectively than the champion Steelers of 2008.
Defensive Passer Rating
2009 – 13th (82.5)
2008 – 2nd (63.4)
Conclusion: Now we're getting somewhere. The 2008 Steelers possessed a shutdown pass defense last year. They're nearly 20 points worse this year – that's a major, major statistical difference.
Remember, too, that the Super Bowl champion 2008 Steelers surrendered just 5.37 yards per pass attempt on defense, easily the lowest number in the league last year and a number that compared favorably to the greatest of the Steel Curtain defenses. This year's team surrenders 6.7 yards per pass attempt – a notable statistical decline.
The 2008 Steelers also surrendered just 12 TDs passes against 20 INTs. The 2009 Steelers are not even close to those numbers: 15 TD passes allowed through 13 games, with just 8 INT.
Offensive Hog Index
2009 – 20th overall – 16th (4.2 YPA), 24th (10.7% NPP), 17th (38.1% third downs)
2008 – 28th overall – 29th (3.68 YPA), 28th (11.5% NPP), 14th (41.1% third downs)
Conclusion: As bad as Pittsburgh's Offensive Hogs looked Thursday night, the unit as a whole has actually been more productive than the 2008 crew. As we noted last year, it was something of a miracle that the Steelers won the Super Bowl despite being handicapped by one of the worst offensive lines in the league – a crew that couldn't open up running lanes and couldn't protect the passer, but still earned rings thanks to their shutdown defense and playmaking QB. Hell, if they had any pride they would have turned down the Super Bowl prize money. So, despite the problems this year, the unit is actually an improvement over the one last year.
Defensive Hog Index
2009 – 10th overall – 4th (3.7 YPA), 11th (9.5% NPP), 21th (39.8% third downs)
2008 – 1st overall – 1st (3.29 YPA), 1st (12.2% NPP), 1st (31.4% third downs)
Conclusion: Pittsburgh won last year thanks largely to the most dominating Defensive Hogs the league had produced in many, many years. The 2008 Steelers were No. 1 last year in every indicator that comprises our Defensive Hog Index, and it was one of their Defensive Hogs, James Harrison, who was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year and who made the biggest play of the season in the Super Bowl, returning a Kurt Warner INT 100 yards for a touchdown.
The unit is decent this year, but in no way dominating. Their ability to get after the passer and force sacks and INTs has dropped off noticeably, and the unit is not nearly as effective on third downs. Opposing teams can keep drives alive against Pittsburgh much more often than they did last year.
The Cleveland loss was indicative of the decline of the Defensive Hogs: The Browns ripped Pittsburgh for 171 rushing yards on 37 attempts (4.6 YPA) and suffered just one negative pass play (a sack for a loss of six).
The blame game will continue in Pittsburgh, fueled by the ugly Thursday night loss to a pathetic Cleveland rival. The chat boards are already filled with venom aimed at both coordinators.
But from our vantage point – if we step beyond the immediate example of Thursday night's offense-less loss – the answer is obvious: the Steelers have not played championship-caliber defense this year. Hell, if you give up 27 points to both the Chiefs and the Raiders, you got problems. It was the biggest offensive explosion of the year by either of these sad-sack teams.
And the offense, meanwhile, which was not good enough to win on its own last year, is not good enough to win on its own this year, either.