The blitz is on.
Take John Madden's word for it.
Two weeks ago the St. Louis Cardinals, not famous for defense, went to Baltimore and sacked Colt quarterback Bert Jones 12 times.
Last week the Colts, no models of massive resistance, sacked Steve Fuller of the Kansas City Chiefs, a team with the worst pass defense in the American Football Conference, 10 times.
Is there a mere short-range revival of the blitz or is there the prospect of a throwback to the Chicago Bears, who first popularized the strategem when it was thought to be a cover-up for an overall deficiency on defense?
"I think it is coming back," said Madden, former coach who now is a sportscaster, columnist and television commercial ham.
For the uninitiated, a "pass rush" by defensive linemen becomes a "blitz" when linebackers and/or defensive backs join the charge at the quarterback.
National Football League statistics showed an increase in sacks in 1979 after rules were liberalized in 1978 to favor the offense, but the number of sacks fell again this season, apparently because of an emphasis on a quick whistle once quarterbacks are in the secure grasp of defenders.
After nine weeks in 1978 there were 556 sacks of passers posted; 585 at the same juncture in 1979, and 548 so far this season.
"Defenders can't get to the passers these days with three or four linemen, not even the Rams," Madden said, "so if teams are going to try for the sack they are going to have to do it with a blitz (add linebackers or defensive backs). There is a combination of reasons -- the new rules, the attempts to rattle young quarterbacks, and widespread injuries to offensive linemen.
"Everywhere I go there seems to be more offensive linemen hurt than usual. That has been the downfall of Detroit after a great start with Billy Sims. I usually have a game taped while I'm away from home broadcasting another game. That's how I saw that the Lions beat the 49ers with a safety blitz by Jimmy Allen.
"New rules have made it more difficult to reach the passer with only defensive linemen as rushers. The offensive linemen have more tools since the liberalization of regulations on pass blocking. They can keep their arms extended and their hands open. The defensive linemen no longer can use the head slap. Pass defenders can take only one chuck at receivers, within five yards at the line of scrimmage."
In the interest of increasing the entertainment offense provides for fans, the NFL is seen as virtually permitting offensive linemen to hold, legally. The elimination of the head slap took away the speed technique popularized by Hall of Famer David (Deacon) Jones in rushing the passer.
Madden said, "The only reason that teams don't blitz on every down is that it leaves you in one defense -- man to man.You can't have too many mismatches, situations where you can't cover a wide receiver on that basis."
It is said with some hyperbole that defenders rarely dared to blitz bullet-arm Sammy Baugh of the Redskins in the days before face masks were worn because they feared he would knock them down with the ball. Old-timers say Otto Graham never had to face the blitz because it wasn't generally used. Y. A. Tittle beat it with deep-drop screen passes. Norm Van Brocklin averted injuries from the blitz with an uncanny knack of being able to collapse his body before the moment of impact.
The tactic used to be called "red-dogging." Madden recalls, "When I was a kid sportscaster Bob Fouts (father of San Diego quarterback Dan Fouts) popularized the term on the West Coast. He would say on the air -- like Ed McMahon shouting, 'Heeeere's Johnny' -- 'The red dog is on.'
"To beat the blitz you have to have a real good corps of receivers that the defense can't cover man to man. That is more important than the quarterback. The first reason not to blitz is if you don't have defenders who can't cover. If you are scared of a mismatch to the extent that you have to double-cover a receiver, you can't blitz.
"When Pittsburgh is healthy -- with Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Jim Smith -- the Steelers are not a team you would blitz; or the Chargers with John Jefferson, Charley Joiner, and Kellen Winslow; or New England with Harold Jackson and Stanley Morgan, or Atlanta with Alfred Jackson and Alfred Jenkins.
"Or especially with a speed guy like Cliff Branch of the Raiders. The first thing we would want with Warren Wells, or Branch now, would be for our quarterback to spot Branch one-on-one and there would be no blitz. The trouble is every team doesn't have two or three great receivers. When our defensive backs Willie Brown and Kent McCloughan were young we could cover man-to-man, particularly because we could use bump-and-run all over the field then. McCloughan originated that coverage. Pat Fischer did it by axing or cutting down the receiver one on one at the line of scrimmage."
Madden said Joe Namath was the toughest to blitz, because of his extremely deep drop and his quick release. Some quarterbacks avoid the blitz with a quick release; some run a little, and some are strong. Terry Bradshaw is so strong that defenders bounce off him. Roman Gabriel was so strong that Frank Gifford says it was like tackling a statue.
Madden said, "Otto Graham and Johnny Unitas beat the blitz because they had good players -- receivers like Dante Lavelli and Mac Speedie at Cleveland, Raymond Berry and Lennie Moore at Baltimore. They didn't have sophisticated blitzes in Graham's day.
"Bart Starr was not a good quarterback to blitz because the Packers had good running. If you had the Packers in second and long they would still go to Paul Hornung or Jim Taylor to get the first down.
"When they were young, Fran Tarkenton and Roger Staubach could run to beat the blitz, like Jim Zorn does. Ken Stabler could move out of trouble quickly. Fouts and Joe Theismann can move quickly. Bob Griese could beat the blitz with the speed of Paul Warfield on a post pattern.
"Sonny Jurgensen was the type you'd try to blitz, but he was smart; he'd just sling the ball to Charley Taylor or Bobby Mitchell or Jerry Smith.You couldn't make a living blitzing Jurgy."