Ask a current Falcons defender about “The Grits Blitz” – the 1970s gang that momentarily brought NFL offense to a standstill – and receive in return a 100-yard stare.
“Sounds like something fast, I don’t know,” Falcons safety Keanu Neal said, taking a valiant stab.
It has been 40 long years since the only part of a Falcons team worth nicknaming set a scoring record that should never be broken.
What would you think of a defense, Mr. Neal, that gave up an average of only 9.2 points per game (over a 14-game season), held half of its opponents to seven points or fewer and so harassed the quarterback that it feasted on 26 interceptions while giving up only nine touchdown passes?
“A lot of 1-and-outs, lot of 3-and-outs, lot of turnovers. They definitely got after it and got to the ball,” Neal said. Now he’s getting it. This Generation Z DB is one quick study.
Neal should be so lucky to be part of a defensive unit that stonewalled like this one did at its peak in 1977. It’s 129 points allowed is the modern-day record for fewest in a 14-game season. It’s 9.2-points-allowed per game is less than the 16-game record by the 2000 Baltimore Ravens (10.3).
And that nickname, what a lyrical handle for an approach to defense that was all jailbreak and no filler, a singular devotion to mayhem that was beautiful while it lasted. If only offensive coordinators weren’t so stuck on the concept of adaptation.
Its rank in the roll call of great all-time defenses is debatable if only because the bottom line was so average – the Falcons were 7-7 in ’77, with a plain yogurt offense that couldn’t have found the end zone even if it had GPS back then. Those Falcons’ offense put up only 17 touchdowns that season.
“I doubt very seriously that anyone is going to go through a year and give up only nine points a game,” said the Falcons’ head coach from 1977, Leeman Bennett. “By the same token, not many teams are going to go through the year and only score 179 points (those Falcons meager total).”
Meanwhile, up in the stands, “We used to yell for the defense to get the ball so they could maybe score,” said Connie Brezina, wife of that defense’s leader in the middle, linebacker Greg Brezina.
That defense contained but one eventual Hall of Famer – lineman Claude Humphrey – yet as a whole, the Grits Blitz belongs in the company of such other defensive appellations as Purple People Eaters, Doomsday, Fearsome Foursome, Steel Curtain, Orange Crush.
Performing on a team that had zero national profile, this defense had to be special to star in its own television commercial.
Forty years later, Greg Brezina can still recite his lines: “When grits gotta be good and they gotta be quick, they gotta be Quaker.”
Want to make an old cornerback smile? Forty years later mention his defense and its trademark of bringing blitzes in great numbers from all angles, sewing confusion across the line of scrimmage.
“Imagine offensive coordinators staying awake all week thinking, ‘How are we going to do this, how are we going to block all these people?’ Because we were coming from everywhere,” said Rolland Lawrence, a Pro Bowler in 1977.
Want to make an old linebacker screw on his game face once more? Mention that his defense from four decades past doesn’t belong alongside the most miserly of them all.
“I used to get in these great arguments once a year with (former Miami lineman) Manny Fernandez,” said former Falcons linebacker Ralph Ortega, from his home in Miami. “He’d talk about the 1972 Dolphins, the perfect team. And I would always tease him that if he had the ’77 Falcons defense with that offense, that would have been the dream team.
“I’m telling you, that defense in any era would have been great.”
Quick language lesson: Born in Cuba, Ortega often took his old defense international, touting it during Spanish-language broadcasts he’d work. So, exactly how do you say Grits Blitz in Spanish?
“Greets Bleetz,” he said through laughter and an exaggerated accent.
The 1977 season was a perfect intersection of need colliding with opportunity. Undergoing a coaching change – Bennett stepping in to a franchise that had gone 11-31 the preceding three seasons – the Falcons ached for new ideas. And a quirky defensive assistant named Jerry Glanville was just the guy to provide those.
Glanville, a former Georgia Tech assistant and Falcons head coach in the 1990s, paired the go-for-broke personality he fostered as a coach with a scheme. Bring the big rush from everywhere and it would flummox the quarterback and disrupt the running game.
“We didn’t give a (expletive) what formation (the offense) came out in. We were going at it. We sent more people than they could block,” Humphrey said.
Glanville often receives credit for devising the nickname as well as the scheme. He won’t take credit for that. A late fan whose name he has forgotten was the author of Grits Blitz, he said. “A bread delivery guy, I think,” Glanville said.
The impact was immediate. In the penultimate game of the 1976 season, the Falcons were overrun by the Los Angeles Rams 59-0. Re-matching with Rams in the ’77 opener, with Joe Namath making his L.A. debut, Glanville joked in advance with his defense that this might be Namath’s last game. It wasn’t, but the Falcons still won, 17-6.
“That set the tone for the rest of the year. We got after (Namath), and it worked exactly as we hoped,” Bennett said.
The third game of that season, the Blitz was unleashed upon the New York Giants with almost comical effect (and a 17-3 Falcons win). “We had nine sacks by nine different people,” Glanville said. “And when the game was over, Claude Humphrey didn’t have a sack. He threw his helmet the full length of the locker room.”
The fifth game of that season, the Falcons held Buffalo and O.J. Simpson out of the end zone. But, in a portent of more offensive struggles to come as young quarterback Steve Bartkowski recovered from knee surgery, the Falcons still lost 3-0.
In Game 6 against Chicago, with safety Ray Easterling playing like a man possessed, the Falcons held another legendary back, Walter Payton, to 69 yards on 24 carries.
In Game 11 against Tampa Bay, a shutout, they held to Bucs to 78 yards of offense and forced five turnovers.
By the final game, against the rival Saints, the Falcons needed to hold New Orleans to no more than 10 points to claim the 14-game scoring record.
“When we went out and played the Saints the last game of the year, we were ready to stripe somebody,” lineman Jeff Merrow said. “It was serious stuff for us. That was all we had to play for.” They beat the Saints at home 35-7.
A record was theirs for, well, let’s say forever. There are more games in a season now. And offense is the favored child the league.
Will some modern defense one day stand up and allow fewer points than the Grits Blitz? “It ain’t gonna happen, not with the game the way it is now. It’s like freakin’ Frisbee out there now,” Merrow said.
They received no trophies or championship rings that season – a Falcons tradition at the time. What the defense did get were individual plaques confirming their membership in “The 129 Point Club.”
As the years have passed and the legend of the Grits Blitz has faded like drapes in the sun, it has been up to its aging disciples to be the keepers of the legend. Pride is in no short supply among them.
“Were they a bunch of No. 1 picks? No. But what did they have? Courage. Courageous, tough – that’s who they were,” Glanville said.
“It was wonderful to be a part of a group of guys that didn’t have great names, but we worked together as a unit,” Brezina said. “We achieved as a unit what no one else could achieve in NFL history.”
Brezina, who made his home in metro Atlanta, is a true-enough Falcon to look toward the day when Neal and his generation – both on defense and offense – push the Grits Blitz further back in team annals.
In the meantime, he’ll be quite happy maintaining that the 1977 defense was, “To me, the greatest Falcons accomplishment until they win the Super Bowl this season.”
This season? Really?
“That’s my prediction,” smiled the old Grits Blitzer. “But that’s been my prediction every year.”