Tuesday, April 14, 2020

A Defense for The Ages—The 1977 Falcons

By Joe Zagorski

There have been many great defenses throughout the glorious 100-year past of the National Football League. Some have set records. Others have made their mark from ferocious play. Still, others have captured fame from consistently making key plays in game-breaking situations. But when discussing the all-time greatest defense, the likes of The Steel Curtain, Doomsday, and The Purple Gang, etc., all must take a back seat to the Atlanta Falcons.

The Atlanta Falcons? Yes, but to be specific, the 1977 Atlanta Falcons. In that year, the Falcons defense set a league record that still stands to this very day.  They permitted a low of just 129 points in that 14-game season, which broke the record set by the Minnesota Vikings in 1969 when they allowed just 133 points.
It is highly doubtful that any team will ever break the record set by the 1977 Falcons in this day and age, with the current pass-happy offenses dominating the league, and with the two extra regular-season games to boot. Today, the rules are slanted to benefit the offenses, as wide receivers are allowed free reign to get open throughout the deeper realms of the secondary, and where offensive linemen are permitted to grasp the jerseys of the charging defensive linemen. No, Atlanta’s record in 1977 seems as safe from being tied or broken as is any record in the league. 
There are several items that stand out as unique regarding that Falcon defense. For one, with the exception of future Hall of Fame defensive end Claude Humphrey, they really did not have any famous (or even near-famous) players lining up for their defense. Ask most football fans today to identify a couple of the members of that Falcon defense, and they would be hard-pressed to do so. 

For another, the 1977 Atlanta offense presented their defense with no real favors. Atlanta could muster only 179 points, an average of only 9.2 points per game, one of the lowest marks in the league.  Moreover, 18 of those points came from defensive players who returned two interceptions and one fumble for scores. The offense also did not offer much in the category of sustaining scoring drives past midfield.  But to their credit, rookie head coach Leeman Bennett’s offense only committed 25 turnovers in 1977, many of which came in enemy territory, which at least gave the opposition a longer distance to go in order to register a score.  In contrast, the Falcons defense forced a total of 38 turnovers in 1977, including recovering 22 fumbles, the highest mark in the National Football Conference.

What really helped the Atlanta defense obtain their record of 129 total points permitted that year were their opponents, specifically the quality of their opponents. Atlanta played quite a few of the lower echelon teams throughout the NFL in 1977.  Foes such as Chicago, Buffalo, New Orleans (twice), San Francisco (twice), Tampa Bay, and the New York Giants dotted their schedule. Indeed, the stars aligned extremely well for any good defense to make a mark towards greatness with those types of opponents in that season. The Falcons defense fit that bill to a tee.

The 1977 Atlanta defense also was granted a nickname, a staple of any famous defense to lay claim to.  They were called the Grits Blitz, a takeoff of the Southern grits that had a place in many a diner and dinner table south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But they really did not blitz that much. 

The Falcons defense made their mark on overall team speed and swarming rapidly to the point of attack.  Their linebackers included the likes of starters Greg Brezina (90 tackles to lead the team plus 4½ sacks),  Robert Pennywell (86 tackles, 7 for losses) on the outside and  Ralph Ortega was the middle linebacker (71 tackles). The backups were primarily Dewey McClain (41 tackes) and  Fulton Kuykendall.

It is doubtful if many diehard Atlanta fans could list more than two of those players. The defensive line consisted of stalwarts such as starting defensive ends Claude Humphrey (All-pro 50 tackles, 9½ sacks) and Jeff Merrow (73 tackles, 10 sacks, 8 stuffs), and defensive tackles Jim Bailey and Mike Lewis. Serving on the defensive line in a reserve capacity was end Jeff Yeates, and tackle Wilson Faumuina.

Rounding out the Falcon defense was the secondary composed of All-Pro Rolland Lawrence and Rick Byas (75 tackles, 3 INTS with one going for a TD) with youngster Frank Reed in reserve. Safeties Ray Brown (85 tackles, 5 INTs) and Ray Easterling (79 tackles, 4 picks) patrolled the deep zones

Interceptions were the key defensive category for the 1977 Atlanta defense, and the unit accounted for 26 of them, the best mark in the NFC, and good enough for 462 yards in returns.  The team leader in this pilfering of opposing passes was Rolland Lawrence, who claimed seven pigskins for 138 yards in returns. 
The Falcons played a 4-3 defense under the tutelage of defensive coaches Jim Champion (defensive line), Jerry Glanville (defensive backfield), and Doug Shively (linebackers). The trademark of the defense was hard-hitting, which could be seen on a regular basis by all the defenders. Those timely hits began in week one, when Atlanta welcomed the defending NFC West Champion Los Angeles Rams, and their brand-new quarterback, Joe Namath. 

This inaugural game of the 1977 regular season saw the Falcons defense in midseason form, as they plastered Namath and the Rams in front of a hometown crowd in Dixie, 17-6. It was a most unexpected outcome, as Los Angeles had defeated Atlanta six straight times before this game. The Falcons defense sacked Namath three times in the win and recovered three Rams fumbles.
“I think no matter what we’d have done, the way they were playing, we’d have had a tough time,” admitted Namath.

The first tough time for the Falcons came in their second game at Washington. The Redskins were the NFC’s Wild Card winner from the previous year. The Atlanta defense once again played splendidly, as they limited Washington to just one touchdown, but that was enough to post a 10-6 triumph over the Falcons. This game displayed one of the most common occurrences to be played out throughout the 1977 season. Atlanta’s offense was able to move the ball up and down the field but had plenty of difficulty in producing touchdowns.

The Falcons returned home for week three and took on the lowly New York Giants.  It was no contest.  Atlanta probably should have scored more than two touchdowns in their 17-3 win.  Nevertheless, the Grits Blitz made another strong showing, as they dismantled the New York offense in all phases.  They sacked New York’s quarterbacks nine times for 81 yards in losses. It was a most vivid showing of what their defense could accomplish against a young team, much like themselves.
“Our rushing defense is making our pass defense look good,” said Atlanta head coach Leeman Bennet following the victory over the Giants.  “Stopping the run puts us in position where we know when our opponents are going to pass.”

One specific pass turned out to be vital in the following game. Atlanta’s fourth contest provided another clue as to the trends of their 1977 season. Their offense once again failed to make a decent showing. Their only score was from a deflected 39-yard pass from quarterback Scott Hunter to wide receiver Alfred Jenkins. Fortunately for the Falcons, their defense once again delivered another outstanding performance, as they registered their first shutout of the year.

Coach Bennett’s boys could take heart in their 7-0 win and their 3-1 record, which was good enough for sole ownership of first place in the NFC West. But Bennett knew that obtaining only one touchdown per game was not going to be enough to stay in contention for a postseason berth.

This was amply proven the following week when the Falcons themselves were shutout in Buffalo by the Bills, 3-0. It was a game where the offense once again had several chances to score but never did.  It was also a game where the Grits Blitz did yeoman work in keeping the Buffalo offense scuttled for most of the struggle. For lovers of defensive football, it was one of the best games of the year!

Finally, in week six, the Atlanta offense resurfaced in some measure, as the team posted a 16-10 victory over the host Chicago Bears. But once again, it was the Falcons defense that provided the winning plays for the team.  They forced five Bears turnovers in the game, three of which resulted in 13 of the team’s points. The only Chicago touchdown came very late in the fourth quarter on a kickoff return.  Things were looking good for Atlanta, but the good feelings did not last.  A 14-7 loss to the visiting Minnesota Vikings in week seven once again showed how poor the Falcons offense was playing. 

Nevertheless, permitting the future NFC Champion Vikings to just two touchdowns served as somewhat of an uplifting fact as the team began the second half of the 1977 season. Unfortunately for Atlanta’s offense, they just could not come up with a sustaining and successful effort, regardless of who they played. Their next game was at home against their division rivals, the San Francisco 49ers, a team that had only won twice prior to playing the Falcons in week eight.  The 49ers managed to earn a 10-3 win. 

It got to the point that no matter how well Atlanta’s defense played, their offense was never going to score enough points to stay competitive. Whoever said that “Defense Wins Championships” certainly could not have been talking about the 1977 Falcons.

Finally, in week nine, Atlanta beat a team that they traditionally had a very difficult time beating.  The visiting Detroit Lions had never lost to the Falcons, and it appeared as if their winning would continue, as they scored the first points of the game in the first quarter. But that was it for Detroit, as they were shut out for the remainder of the contest. 

The Atlanta defense did some scoring of their own in the fourth quarter, and it was their efforts which won this game. Linebacker Ralph Ortega picked up a fumble midway through the final period and sprinted 14 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Just a few moments later, fellow linebacker Robert Pennywell snared an interception and ran 20 yards for an insurance score in the Falcons’ 17-6 win, a victory which boosted Atlanta’s record to 5-4.

“Anytime you come up with 14 points from your defense, you should win,” explained Coach Bennett. 

The Falcons should have won their following game as well, but they did not. Another divisional foe took on the Falcons in the 10th week of the season.  For the first time in a long time, Atlanta’s offense actually put together a strong effort at New Orleans. Unfortunately for the Falcons, this game displayed the first truly bad defensive effort. Atlanta’s defense permitted Saints quarterback Archie Manning to direct a 90-yard drive later in the fourth quarter, which culminated with a winning touchdown toss to tight end Henry Childs. New Orleans came from behind to defeat the Falcons, 21-20. This defeat, for all intents and purposes, ended any hopes for Atlanta, now 5-5, to make the 1977 playoffs.

Atlanta resumed their winning ways in week 11 with a 17-0 shutout victory over the host Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  It was their second and final shutout of the season. By this stage of the year, the Falcons defense had permitted only 83 points.  Breaking Minnesota’s 1969 record of 133 points allowed certainly seemed to be within their reach.

The New England Patriots visited Atlanta in week 12. The Patriots had some really stellar athletes permeating their roster. It would be interesting to see how well offensive weapons such as All-Pro tight end Russ Francis, running back Sam “Bam” Cunningham, wide receivers Darryl Stingley and Stanley Morgan, and mobile quarterback Steve Grogan, would fare going up against the Falcon defenders. 

As it turned out, the Atlanta defense did pretty well, and held the Patriots to just three field goals until late in the fourth quarter. At that time, a 33-yard touchdown pass from Grogan to Morgan provided the winning points in a 16-10 New England win. The Falcons thus fell back down to the .500 mark with a 6-6 record. Two more games remained on the 1977 schedule.

Atlanta visited Los Angeles the following week and tried to duplicate the feat that they pulled off in the first week of the season. By but the 13th game, the Rams were already declared the NFC West Champion. This contest would prove that the Los Angeles offense was just too strong for the Falcon defense. Running back Lawrence McCutcheon paced the Rams with 152 yards rushing on just 17 carries, as Los Angeles prevailed, 23-7.

Despite the disheartening loss to the Rams, the hope that Atlanta’s defense could still break the NFL’s points allowed record for a single season was still plausible. All they needed to do was give up less than 10 points against the visiting New Orleans Saints in the final game of the year on December 18th.

This they did, as they surrendered only one touchdown and a conversion in a 35-7 romp over the Saints. The Falcons offense finally put together an exemplary effort with plenty of scoring, and the defense shut out the Saints all throughout the game’s last two quarters. Atlanta finished 1977 with a 7-7 record.

“They (the Atlanta defense) went out there and took it,” said Coach Bennett. “I didn’t use it (obtaining the record) for motivation.  I just told them it was a lot shorter winter if you win the last ball game.”

The shortness of the year notwithstanding, the record achieved of 129 points surrendered during one season by the 1977 Atlanta Falcons put their defense in the league’s record book. It is unlikely that their epic record will ever be broken.

Lowitt, Bruce.  “Raiders, Vikings Keep Patterns.”  Monroe News-Star, September 19, 1977, 13-

Shearer, Ed.  “Misery is over: Saints end 3-11.”  South Mississippi Sun, December 19, 1977, 13.
United Press International.  “A New Year for Falcons’ Defense.”  Kingston Daily Freeman,
 October 3, 1977, 9.
_____.  “Fumble Propels Atlanta.”  Defiance Crescent News, November 14, 1977, 22.

Conners, Fran (Ed.), National Football League 1978 Media Information Book.  New York: NFL
 Properties, Inc., Creative Services Division, 1978.
Neft, David S., and Cohen, Richard M.  The Sports Encyclopedia Edition 6.  Pro Football the
 Modern Era, 1960-1988.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

Editor’s Note: Joe Zagorski is a long-time member of the Pro Football Researchers Association.  He has written three pro football books, including The NFL in the 1970s: Pro Football’s Most Important Decade (2016); The Year the Packers Came Back: Green Bay’s 1972 Resurgence (2019); and America’s Trailblazing Middle Linebacker: The Story of NFL Hall of Famer Willie Lanier (2020).  He is currently writing a book about former Philadelphia Eagles free safety Bill Bradley.

1 comment:

  1. Great article ...

    The Falcons should have won ten games in my view but their offence was terrible ... A record for defence that will never be broken ...