Ask folks in the South about their memories of historically great NFL defenses and there is one group that might keep popping up.
Sure, the ’85 Bears are an obvious choice, the ’00 Ravens, another, and some younger fans would likely have the Legion of Boom on their list. But long before any of those units stepped onto the field, the 1977 Atlanta Falcons and their Gritz Blitz defense set a modern NFL record for fewest points allowed.
Atlanta gave up just 129 points in 14 games that season, an average of 9.2 points per game. The 1982 Washington Redskins allowed the fewest points in a single season since the AFL-NFL merger, giving up 128 points. The key difference, however, is that the NFL played a nine-game season that year due to a player strike. In five more games, the Falcons allowed just one more point.
“The cool thing about the Gritz Blitz was that they were a national brand. That was a national brand,” said Falcons president Rich McKay, son of the Buccaneers’ first head coach and general manager John McKay. “Atlanta prior to that, other than drafting Steve Bartkowski which was a national move, the Gritz Blitz really put them on the map. And it was a legitimate defense that was fun to watch.”
The Falcons surrendered an average of 231 yards per game in 1977, fewer than any unit on the shortlist for historically great defenses. Atlanta’s 48 takeaways that season are the fourth-most by any team and the second-most in a 14-game season.
It’s likely that a 7-7 record that season and the era in which they played that left Atlanta’s unit a little underappreciated, but that was hardly the defense’s fault.
“The cool thing about the defense is there are plenty of defenses that come through the years that have been stifling run defenses or stifling pass defenses,” McKay said. “That one was both. It was a good run defense and it was a great pass defense.
“It was in an era where, because the Steelers were so dominant and because the Steelers were so good on defense for so many years in the ’70s, it probably didn’t the credit it deserved.”
Offensively, the Falcons were far from competent. In 1977, the Falcons finished 25th out of 28 NFL teams in total and scoring offense, averaging 232 yards and 13 points per game, respectively. Atlanta scored seven points or fewer seven times, including one shutout – they lost to the Buffalo Bills 3-0.
The poor offensive play spoiled some outstanding games by the Gritz Blitz, but they did their part by notching two shutouts of their own that season. One such shutout came on Nov. 27 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who joined the NFL as an expansion team one season prior.
To that point in their existence the Buccaneers had not yet won an NFL game, and the Falcons did not want to be the first team to earn that distinction. Notably, that goes to the New Orleans Saints, who the Buccaneers beat two weeks after their meeting with the Falcons.
“The one thing you did not want to do was lose to an expansion team, and I think we did lose to [the newly-created Seattle Seahawks] the year before,” former Falcons linebacker Ralph Ortega said. “You didn’t want to be the first one to lose to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I think that was our biggest concern.”
Fortunately for the Falcons, the Buccaneers did not earn their first victory at Atlanta’s expense.
The Falcons relied on their shutdown defense while utilizing a ball-control approach on offense to earn a 17-0 win and hand the Buccaneers their 25th-straight defeat.
Atlanta allowed a season-low 78 yards and eight first downs to the Buccaneers that afternoon while forcing five turnovers, including four interceptions.
“Truthfully that ’77 defense we were ballhawks,” Ortega said. “We were very opportunistic.”
Ortega was one of the four players who intercepted Buccaneers quarterbacks Randy Hedberg and Gary Huff in the Falcons’ victory. Safety Ray Easterling, cornerback Rolland Lawrence and linebacker Robert Pennywell were the other three players to pick off a pass.
There were plenty of notable names on the Falcons’ Gritz Blitz defense, including Ortega, but he felt there was one player who far surpassed the others on the unit.
“I’ve read a lot about it over the years and one of the things I’ve never seen anybody highlight was how important Claude Humphrey was to that defense,” Ortega said. “The rest of us – [Greg] Brezina was an above-average player for sure, so was Fulton Kuykendall, and I thought Ray Easterling was a real critical part of that defense because he coached the defensive backs so much on the field. Of course, Rolland Lawrence had the stats.
“But the offense would start one or two gaps inside of Claude and do nothing outside of him, because you could have taken the rest of us off the field and they weren’t going to get around him anyway. He was so dominant.”
Ortega is spot on when it comes to Humphrey’s importance to not only that unit but also his prowess as a defensive end during that era. While Deacon Jones is often credited with the NFL’s decision to ban the head slap as a pass rushing move in 1977, Humphrey also used it to devastating effect during his Hall of Fame career.
When he left Atlanta in 1978 after spending 11 seasons with the Falcons, the former third-overall pick and five-time All Pro was unofficially credited with 94.5 sacks, which remains the most in franchise history. The league did not officially begin tracking stats until the 1982 season.
“The two players defensively who were just off the charts while I was there was, of course, Claude and then I would say Tommy [Nobis] was next,” said Ortega.
Atlanta’s attacking and smothering defense allowed the Falcons to play a very conservative, ball-control style on offense. Against the Buccaneers, the Falcons ran the ball a staggering 58 times for 175 yards and two touchdowns. They were led by Haskel Stanback, who carried the ball 21 times for 75 yards and two touchdowns, and Woody Thompson, who had 17 carries for 32 yards.
To that point in their existence, the Buccaneers had not just been bad, they had struggled to be competitive, and they ran into a buzz-saw in the Falcons’ Gritz Blitz.
Ironically, however, the Falcons-Buccaneers rivalry has been very competitive from a macro view. Atlanta leads the all-time series, 26-24, but Tampa Bay has scored 20 more points across the team’s 50 meetings.
This isn’t a rivalry that feels particularly heated, though, because the two teams haven’t often been contenders at the same time and haven’t played games with a lot on the line. Just nine times across this 50-game rivalry have both the Falcons and Buccaneers entered the game with a winning record, and four of those games have been in the past decade. Four is also the number of games that have had a tangible impact on the playoff race.
“Tampa has been a divisional game and therefore it’s always an important game,” McKay said. “But it’s not felt the same as Carolina and certainly nothing that we do feels the same as the Saints.”
The first meeting between these two eventual division rivals was representative of how things have unfolded in the 40 years since.
As they had so many times throughout that season, though, the Falcons relied on a defense that would prove the stoutest in the NFL’s modern history to avoid giving their new-born rival its first professional victory.