The Best NFL Defense You’ve Never Heard Of

When you think of all-time great NFL defenses, there are a few that come to mind. Maybe it’s the ’85 Bears, or the 2000 Ravens. Perhaps it’s the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars and their Sacksonville defense, or the Denver Broncos Orange Crush defenses of the ’70s, or the Minnesota Vikings Purple People Eaters. And you can’t talk iconic defenses without bringing up the Pittsburgh Steelers and their Steel Curtain. But one defense that was absolutely dominant that no one seems to talk about is the 1977 Atlanta Falcons and their “Grits Blitz” defense.

1977 on the surface wasn’t a spectacular season for the Falcons. Atlanta went 7-7 in their first season under head coach Leeman Bennett, and yes, they went 7-7 because this was in the era of the 14-game regular season. The Falcons offense was average at best under quarterbacks Scott Hunter and Steve Bartkowski, but the defense really shined. Anchored by defensive end Claude Humphrey and cornerback Rolland Lawrence, the Grits Blitz defense allowed an average of 9.2 points a game, which remains an NFL record through the end of the 2021 season. To put that in perspective, the 2021 Los Angeles Rams gave up 21.9 points a game with a 17 game regular season. The ’85 Bears gave up 12.1 points a game and the 2000 Ravens allowed 10.2 points a game. The ’77 Falcons allowed 231.6 yards per game and 3.7 net yards per play. Despite the name, the Grits Blitz never really blitzed. Instead, they swarmed rapidly and relied on sheer speed. Outside of Hall of Famer Claude Humphrey and Pro Bowler Rolland Lawrence, the Falcons never really had any defensive stars. Linebacker Greg Brezina led the team at 90 tackles, and he also had 4.5 sacks that year. Interceptions were a key part of their defensive strategy, as they had 26 of them. Defensive end Claude Humphrey was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014, and sadly passed away in December 2021 at the age of 77.

But why did the Falcons only go 7-7 with such a dominant defense? Simple: The offense couldn’t score points. The ’77 Falcons were averaging 0.92 field goals a game and 2.75 touchdowns a game. For example, in Week 5, they lost 3-0 to the Buffalo Bills. That’s right, 3-0 was the final score. Even by 1970’s standards where lower scoring games were the norm, this was an absolutely horrendous game. Late in the fourth quarter, Atlanta blocked a punt and got the ball back on Buffalo’s 13-yard line. The offense then proceeded to run four plays and have a turnover on downs to give Buffalo the win.

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