Breaking it Down: Atlanta’s Gritz Blitz Defense

In 1977, Atlanta put together the greatest single-season defensive unit in NFL history, giving up only 129 points, a record that still stands, one that hasn’t been broken by any defense, not even the 1985 Bears or 2000 Ravens. But why did it work so well?

In 1976, Atlanta was an awful defensive team, giving up 59 points on one occasion to the Rams on an embarrassing shut-out loss on Monday Night Football. Leeman Bennet was hired, and with assistant Jerry Glanville, the two teamed up and created a scheme that would blitz, blitz, and blitz some more. The “Grits Blitz” included a play called ‘Sticky Sam’, in which 9 players rushed the quarterback.

Why did it work so well?

The barbaric offenses of the late 1970s weren’t prepared for it, and teams took an entire season to figure out what had hit them. Nowadays, if 7 men rushed the quarterback on almost every play, you would get absolutely destroyed. Early in the season, the Falcons played the Giants at home, and New York was so confused by Atlanta’s swarming defense that they committed 7 holding penalties, 4 by Center Ralph Hill.

The Falcons had a ton of team chemistry, and it worked to their advantage as well. The unit was truly a no-name defense, as only two players were named All-Pros, one of which was Claude Humphrey (who is now in the hall of fame). That’s why we don’t remember them, but it was another thing as well.

Team Imbalance

Steve Bartkowski

The Falcons’ offense was pitiful in 1977, averaging only 12.8 points per game. Atlanta held 6 opponents to 10 points or less, but only won four of those games. Quarterbacks Steve Bartkowski and Scott Hunter combined for 1,740 yards, 16 interceptions and 40 sacks. Because of this horrific imbalance, the Falcons finished with a record of 7-7, and failed to make the playoffs. Because of this, their legacy is tarnished.

Did it last?

No. In 1978, teams figured out how to conquer the blitz, and Atlanta finished 1978 with 18.1 points surrendered per game. Since then, there has never been another team to match the level of chaotic and dominating defensive play, and because the eras are so different, there will never be another team like it.

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