The NFLs Greatest Defenses & Coodinators Part 5 – Gritz Blitz & ’08 Steelers

In the fifth installment of this series, Jon Somerset (@Orangeman3142) acknowledges criticism of the series, and then dives into the 1977 Atlanta Falcons and 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers defenses and coordinators.

Writers Note: Defenses discussed in this series were selected from a series of Twitter polls, the results and comments from them informed who made the list and who didn’t. If your team hasn’t been discussed in this series yet it’s either because of the over 2,500 people who participated in the polls none of them thought your team was considered one of the “greatest of all time” OR I’ll be covering them later in the series.
If they are an all time defense it’s probably option two and keep reading the series, I’ll get to them soon enough. If they aren’t going to be covered complaining in the comments won’t change the fact that almost three thousand people voted on this series and if none of them thought your particular team qualifies for “greatest all time” then they’re probably right.

Introducing The Defenses

In todays edition of this series we’re going to go one old school and one new school and talk about two of the most requested defenses from the Twitter polls I ran earlier this month to get the initial list of all time defenses for this series. The “Gritz Blitz” was requested many times and to be honest I had no idea what people were talking about.

Turns out that this refers to the 1977 Atlanta Falcons and, to the extent that I’ve researched so far, the greatest statistical defense in the history of the NFL in the older 14 game era. These guys put the Steel Curtain to shame in points per game and yards per game allowed while also tallying more takeaways and sacks than the Steelers as well.

If this team didn’t have an all time horrible offense they would be more than just a nickname and footnote in NFL history. It really is a shame these guys weren’t able to do some damage in the playoffs or win a super bowl because their defensive stats were out of this world.

The second defense we’ll dive into today is the 2008 Steelers, in an era where teams scored more points per game (22PPG) then they did even last year (21.7PPG) the 2008 Steelers had some all time defensive stats and beat a terrific offensive team in Arizona in the last second of a thrilling super bowl.

In part 4 of the series we looked at the 2013 Seahawks and 2015 Broncos and did some adjustments for increased scoring throughout the league to see how they compared with teams like the 85′ Bears and 2000 Ravens and saw that even when accounting for increased scoring both those defenses were still short of what those two legendary defenses accomplished.

When we do the same with the 2008 Steelers I think we’ll probably be a little closer to where those two great defenses were, so let’s have a look. In 2008 NFL offenses scored 22 points per game, that’s 1.3 more PPG than in 2000 (Ravens defense) where offenses scored 20.7 PPG. Take the 1.3 PPG difference and multiply it by a 16 game season and you get 20.8.

The 2008 Steelers allowed 223 points all season, subtract the 21 (rounding up) points that account for scoring increase across the league and our adjusted total is 202 points. The 2000 Ravens allowed 165 points and the 85′ Bears allowed 198 points so it can be said that the 2008 Steelers were in the same wheelhouse as the 85′ Bears in points allowed after we adjust for increased scoring due to rule changes and increased protection of offensive skill players but still fall short of the 2000 Ravens in this department.

The 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers

The 2008 Steelers allowed 237 yards per game, that’s better than both the 2000 Ravens (247 YPG) and 85′ Bears (258 YPG) so once again not only are the 08′ Steelers in the same wheelhouse they actually had a better defense in YPG allowed than both the 85′ Bears and 00′ Ravens.

If we compare takeaways we see that the 08′ Steelers had only 29, far fewer than both the 85′ Bears (54) and 00′ Ravens (49) so they are a ways off in that department. But in sacks once again the 08′ Steelers (51 Sacks) beat out the 00′ Ravens (35 sacks) but lose to the 85′ Bears (64 Sacks).

My takeaway here is that being such a recent defense hurts these 2008 Steelers and that with the passage of time more people will start to realize how much they really deserve to be in this all time defense conversation. they certainly have the stats to back that up. They definitely deserve to be in this series though and we’ll give them their due respect in todays article.

The 1977 Atlanta Falcons

When doing some digging from information about the 1977 Atlanta Falcons “Gritz Blitz”, I had about the same amount of trouble as I did trying to track down stats and information for the “Purple People Eaters” a couple articles ago. So the details are going to be sparse but I’ll share what I’ve found so far.

Although there is no specific defensive coordinator listed for the 77′ Falcons from what I’ve read it’s Jerry Glanville, the defensive backs coach and defensive assistant, who was most directly responsible for the “Gritz Blitz”. Glanville spent a good deal of his NFL career as a head coach and there’s far more information about him in those positions than there was as a contributor to the “Gritz Blitz”.

Even realizing this was all done in a 14 game season the following stats are ridiculous. These Falcons only gave up a total of 129 points the entire season at a clip of 9.2 PPG allowed. They also only allowed 3,242 yards at a pace of 231 YPG given up. They added 48 takeaways and 42 sacks at an average of 3.4 takeaways per game and 3.0 sacks per game.

Those are some ridiculous numbers. They recorded two regular season shutouts and held seven teams to single digits during the 77′ season. Unfortunately their offense wasn’t too hot and they themselves were shut out one time and held to single digit scoring six times during the season.

If it wasn’t for their 25th ranked in yards and 25th ranked in points offense (out of 28 teams) these Falcons might’ve been more than just a statistically great defense no one’s heard of. While they held opposing offenses to 129 points on that season they could only score 179 themselves. The very next year the league expanded to a 16 game season and the “Gritz Blitz” was no more, their PPG allowed ballooned up to 18.1 and it was downhill from there.

The deeper I go down this rabbit hole of historically great defenses I’m wondering if I’ll find one more dominant than this Falcons squad was. They were truly one of a kind.

2008 Pittsburgh Steelers Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau

The 2008 Steelers were led by legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. Charles “Dick” LeBeau first entered the league as a special teams coach with the Eagles in 1973. He just retired in the summer of 2017, that should give you some idea of the experience and wisdom LeBeau had when he was at the helm of the 2008 Steelers defense.

Even before beginning his coaching career in the NFL, Dick was a member of the Detroit Lions secondary for 14 years and was a three time pro bowler during his playing career. As a defensive coordinator LeBeau was an innovator in the creation of the Zone Blitz. He created this defensive scheme in response to the growing league-wide use of the West Coast Offense.

His zone blitzing schemes allowed his teams to get pressure on the quarterback without their defensive backs having to cover too much field and being exposed. LeBeau’s version of the zone blitz was called the “Fire Zone” and used the 3-4 scheme as the base set. His fire zone blitzing schemes used any of the four linebackers and occasionally defensive backs to blitz from different angles and positions while down linemen would sometimes drop into short coverage instead of rushing the quarterback.

The effect of this confused opposing quarterbacks and frustrated attempts to block during passing downs while the often unexpected defensive lineman dropping into coverage would result in batted balls and the occasional interception. LeBeau won two super bowls with the Steelers as defensive coordinator and was named coordinator of the year for 2008.

He is a sure fire bet for the hall of fame when his eligibility arrives. He was one of the first names written down when this article series was just an idea and a list of great defenses and legendary defensive coordinators.

Going Deeper

In 2008 teams were scoring at an average of 22.0 points per game, that’s .3 PPG better than last year with offenses like that Rams, Patriots and Eagles putting in work. For a defense in that era to put up the kind of numbers the ’08 Steelers did is truly impressive. During the regular season they only allowed 223 points at an average of 13.9 PPG given up.

They also only allowed 3,795 yards at an average of 237 YPG surrendered. For reference that’s ten yards less per game given up than the 2000 Ravens and 172 fewer total yards allowed for the season. The 2008 Steelers also had 29 takeaways and 51 sacks for the year. While they didn’t beat out the 2000 Ravens in takeaways they did have 16 more sacks than they did for the season.

Just those stats alone show that the 08′ Steelers belong in this greatest all time defenses conversation. What they did with that defense makes them even more relevant.

The ’08 Steelers finished the regular season with a 12-4 record, a division title and a first round bye in the playoffs. They would face Phillip Rivers and the high scoring Chargers in the divisional round of the playoffs. Despite Pittsburgh’s impressive defense this game would turn into a shoot out quickly and came down to whichever team would make fewer mistakes.

While Phillip Rivers was able to be effective through the air, the Steelers did force the Chargers into a one dimensional attack by stifling the run game to the tune of 11 rushes for 15 yards total. Once Rivers was forced into throwing to try and keep up with the Steelers offense that was humming (165 rushing yds, 3 rush TDs, 181 passing yards, 1 passing TD) the trap was set.

The Steelers defense sacked Rivers four times for negative 33 yards and was picked off once. They also forced and recovered a fumble and held the Chargers to 5 for 12 on third down conversions. In a shootout these turnovers and mistakes were enough to make the difference and the Steelers won 35-24.

In the AFC title game they would face a familiar foe, the division rival Baltimore Ravens. This Baltimore team was no slouch defensively either with their 3rd in PPG allowed and 2nd in YPG allowed defense. This game would be more of the defensive struggle you would expect out of a matchup between these two.

Surprisingly the Ravens were able to run the ball effectively on this Steelers defense and put up 73 rushing yards and two rushing TDs on one of the stingiest run defenses in the league. Through the air however it was a different story. Joe Flacco only completed 13 of 30 attempts for 141 yards, zero TDs and three interceptions.

The Steelers also sacked Flacco three times for negative 16 yards and forced three fumbles, recovering one. The Ravens couldn’t find a way to convert on third down where they were held to 3 for 13 on the day. In a tight game the Steelers dominated time of possession and took advantage of the multiple turnovers to squeak out the win 23-14 and advance to the Super Bowl.

On The Way To Super Bowl XLIII

For their Super Bowl opponent, the ’08 Steelers would face a team not many people expected to be there. The Arizona Cardinals were a wild card team led by an aging quarterback that caught fire during the playoffs and took out the Falcons, Panthers and Eagles on their way to a surprise super bowl run.

They had the 3rd in PPG and 4th in YPG offense led by Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald. And although their defense was not highly ranked at all they took advantage of a high turnover ratio and scored early and often all throughout the playoffs. And while no one may have picked them to represent the NFC for the super bowl they certainly weren’t going to go down without a fight.

Before Super Bowl 43 was done we would all be treated to a game for the ages that came down to the last second before a winner would emerge.

The Steelers defense would start fast and hold the Cardinals to seven points in the first half. The Arizona rushing attack never got off the starting block as they were held to 33 yards for the day. Both teams would force turnovers but in the end the Steelers defense gave them the advantage in takeaways accounting for two fumbles forced, one recovered and an interception of Kurt Warner.

The game was slowing moving in favor of the Steelers and Pittsburgh led 20-7 at the end of the 3rd quarter. However in the final quarter Kurt Warner would show signs of life along with the Arizona defense. A pair of Warner to Larry Fitzgerald touchdowns and a safety from the suddenly swarming Cardinal defense would give Arizona a 23-20 lead with 2:37 left in the game.

Big Ben would methodically lead the Steelers offense down the field and cap off the drive with a toe-tap touchdown to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds left in the game. Kurt Warner completed a couple passes before being strip-sacked and turning the ball over to end the game and give the Steelers their 6th Super Bowl title.

This was an all time ending to a great Super Bowl and words literally can’t do it justice. It was also fitting that the Pittsburgh defense that had put them in position to win all season made the final play to seal the deal in that Super Bowl.

Most people remember the Holmes catch as the end of that game but Warner was driving and was just across into Pittsburgh territory with around 20 seconds left when he was strip sacked to wrap up the game.

This 2008 Steeler defense had some incredible stats and beat some really good teams on their way to their 6th Super Bowl title. I think with the passage of time they will work their way into the conversation of all time great defenses more often because they certainly belong in that category.

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