In 1978, the structure of passing football changed forever. Offensive players were allowed to extend their arms and open their hands on pass blocking. Defenders could no longer contact and impede receivers once they got more than five yards clear of the line of scrimmage. And to make sure that these tweaks were enforced, a seventh official — the side judge — was added to the on-field arbiting crew.
Why is that significant? Because until this year, no team since those rules changes were instituted has ever allowed fewer than eight points a game in their opening six games of the season.
With just 7.3 points permitted per game, the Broncos have the best such average after six games since the 1977 “Grits Blitz” Atlanta Falcons. That Falcons team allowed just 32 points in their first six games, the best such figure in over a half-century. Their success — and that year’s opening six games from the Broncos, which themselves only allowed 7.7 yards a game — were touchstones of the most defensive season in pro football annals since 1942.
In 1977, teams combined to average 34.4 points per game, and the average for the right seasons from 1970-77 was 38.3. By 1983, the tweaks had changed the game, and the per-game average was 43.7 points a game, and the average for the eight seasons after the rules changes was 41.1.
What makes the Broncos’ accomplishment this season all the more remarkable is that it has not come in a season where scoring has been particularly low. Of the 37 seasons played since the AFL-NFL merger, 2006 ranks 19th in total points per game, with 40.9. That figure is, however, 0.3 points lower than it was last year and 2.1 lower than 2004.
Nevertheless, in an age where the rules have been designed to create scoring, the Broncos have managed, for six weeks, to prevent points in a way unseen in this generation.
Other teams with such stellar defensive starts in their first six games:
- 1953 Cleveland Browns: Points allowed: 37 (6.2 per game) … Ended the season 11-1; didn’t lose until season finale at Philadelphia … Explosive on offense; only scored below 20 points once all year, in a 7-0 win at the New York Giants in Week 5 … Average score in first three games: 25.8-6.2 … Lost NFL Championship to Detroit, 17-16.
- 1970 Minnesota Vikings: Points allowed: 39 (6.5 per game) … Ended the season 12-2; lost in divisional playoffs … Lost 13-10 at Green Bay in Week 3 … Coaxed an average of 4.0 turnovers per game in the first five weeks and didn’t have a game without a takeaway until a 20-10 loss to the New York Jets in Week 11 … Allowed 174.2 yards per game in Weeks 1-6.
- 1971 Baltimore Colts: Points allowed: 34 (5.7 per game) … Ended the season 10-4, losing in AFC Championship at Miami, 21-0 … Allowed single digits in four of first five games, including two shutouts … Never permitted more than 21 points over the entire season … Started 4-2, averaged 8.0 points per game in two defeats … Allowed 164.8 yards per game in Weeks 1-6.
- 1977 Atlanta Falcons: Points allowed: 32 (5.3 per game) … Ended the season 7-7, missing wild card by two games and division title by three … Only 4-2 in opening six games because their offense languished, averaging just 10.5 points per game and 236.0 yards per game.