Head coaches get all the praise or criticism around the National Football League, but you’re only as good as your coaching staff. This is a saying that fits with all the major professional sports in North America, but it rings truer in football than any other sport around.
From some washed-up former head coaches to other great young defensive minds, there are a lot of talented coordinators to choose from here. In looking for the top-10 defensive coordinators in the NFL, we took into account previous success as well as pure statistics to form a final list. You may not agree with where these coordinators are ranked or that they are ranked at all, but a ton of research went into this project. And we didn’t just throw names on to a dart board, choosing whoever landed closest to the bullseye.
1. Dick LeBeau, Pittsburgh Steelers
LeBeau has been one of the best coordinators in the NFL for some time. The Hall of Fame defensive back took over Pittsburgh’s stout defense back in 2004 and all he has done since is lead the unit to seven top-10 finishes in terms of points against. In total, the Steelers defense has finished No. 1 in points allowed four times in his decade as their coordinator.
Running strictly a 3-4 defensive front during LeBeau’s tenure, the Steelers redefined how to utilize personnel to fit this type of scheme. They have not possessed a truly elite cornerback during this span, instead relying on pressure from the defensive front. Teams such as the San Francisco 49ers have had recent success following this blueprint. As to where LeBeau might not have been the greatest of head coaches during his three-year tenure with the Cincinnati Bengals, he’s one of the greatest defensive minds in the history of the game. A truly transcendent figure on the sideline.
2. Vic Fangio, San Francisco 49ers
Fangio was your average defensive coordinator in his NFL stint prior to moving on to Stanford back in 2010. He had some success as the Carolina Panthers’ defensive coordinator from 1995-1998, finishing second in points against back in 1996. Outside of that, it was a whole bunch of nothing. From 1995-2005, he led the Panthers, Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans defenses. And finished in the first half of the NFL in points against just three times.
Fangio’s claim to fame in the NFL prior to taking the job in San Francisco, was his nine-year tenure as the New Orleans Saints linebackers coach from 1986-1994. Among those he coached during that span were Rickey Jackson, Sam Mills and Pat Swilling.
Since taking over in San Francisco back in 2011, it’s been complete and utter domination on that side of the ball. His units have finished in the top three in points against and rushing yards allowed each season. The likes of NaVorro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Eric Reid, Ahmad Brooks, Ray McDonald and Justin Smith have also turned into Pro Bowl-caliber players under Fangio’s leadership.
3. Mike Nolan, Atlanta Falcons
Much like LeBeau before, Nolan seems much more suited to be a defensive coordinator than a head coach in the NFL. Following a disastrous three-plus year tenure that saw him go 18-37 as the 49ers head coach, Nolan has once again found his niche on the defensive side of the ball. He led the Broncos to a surprising top-10 finish in yards against back in 2009, which was an amazing feat considering the lack of talent on that unit. Following his one year in Denver, Nolan coordinated the Miami Dolphins defense for two seasons, finishing in the top-10 in points against in 2011.
Since then, his task has been to rebuild what had been a disastrous Atlanta Falcons defense. He helped them to a top-five scoring defense back in 2012 before injuries all over the roster caused a step back last season. Nolan’s overall level of success, dating back to his days as the New York Giants defensive coordinator in the mid 1990’s and with the Baltimore Ravens early this century, makes him a lock for the No. 3 position.
4. Leslie Frazier, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Frazier, a former defensive back for the Chicago Bears during their run in the 1980’s under Mike Ditka, first coordinated a NFL defense back in 2003 with the Cincinnati Bengals. In two years with them, he failed to lead the Bengals defense out of the bottom third of the league in points against. After a four-year hiatus, Frazier took control of the Minnesota Vikings defense. That’s really where his story begins.
Including his time as the Vikings head coach, Frazier led their defense three top-10 finishes in yards allowed. Once Frazier took the head job, the Vikings defense went down hill relatively quickly. And a lot of that had to do with his inability to delegate to others on the coaching staff. Now in his first season as the defensive coordinator for an extremely talented Tampa Bay Buccaneers team, we can expect Frazier to utilize his great defensive mind in order to help that unit improve from a mediocre 2013 campaign.
5. Jim Schwartz, Buffalo Bills
We already know that Schwartz was a dumpster fire of a head coach with the Detroit Lions. While he did some good in terms of turning around a previously dormant franchise, he just didn’t have it in him to be a solid head coach in the NFL. And there is nothing wrong with that. Schwartz’s ability most definitely comes on the defensive side of the ball, where he first started out as the Baltimore Ravens outside linebackers coach from 1996-1998. During that three-year span, Schwartz was able to coach up Peter Boulware, who turned into a huge pass-rush threat.
After taking a job with the Tennessee Titans as a defensive assistant in 1999 and 2000, Schwartz was promoted to defensive coordinator for the first time in his career. While it wasn’t a clear success for Schwartz in his eight seasons as the Titans defensive coordinator, he did help them finish No. 2 in points against in his final season before being hired on as the Lions head coach. Mostly known for his Wide-9 scheme, this talented defensive mind is a perfect fit in Buffalo. He will abe able to utilize the likes of Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes to the best of their ability. Fans in Western New York should be excited about what he brings to the table.
6. Ray Horton, Tennessee Titans
Horton is an interesting character. He spent 18 years as an under-valued assistant in the NFL before finally earning a coordinating job with the Arizona Cardinals in 2011. In two seasons at that position, Horton helped turn around what had been a pretty average unit into what we see today. After leaving Arizona following the 2012 season, Horton caught on as the Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator. He led that unit to a No. 9 overall ranking in yards against, but was a victim of the Browns house-cleaning following the season.
Now called on to coordinate a struggling Titans defense, Horton has his work cut out for him. While not necessarily being void of talent, Tennessee finished 16th in scoring defense and 14th in yards against last season. Look for it to improve a great deal in 2014, especially under Horton’s multiple-front 3-4 scheme.
7. Dan Quinn, Seattle Seahawks
Quinn might have taken over an extremely talented defense from Gus Bradley last season, but what he was able to do in the Seahawks’ Super Bowl-winning campaign was history making. Seattle finished first overall in yards allowed, points against and pass defense. It allowed the fewest rushing touchdowns and second-fewest passing touchdowns. Overall, the Seahawks yielded a total of 273.6 yards per game, which was nearly 30 yards less than the No. 2 team in that category.
Quinn’s success shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. He led some stout defensive lines with the San Francisco 49ers (2003-2004), Miami Dolphins (2005-2006), New York Jets (2007-2008) and these very same Seahawks from 2009-2010. What was amazing about Quinn’s transformation in his first season as a defensive coordinator in the NFL was the fact that he did a tremendous job delegating to other assistants on that side of the ball. Linebackers coach Ken Norton Jr and defensive passing game coordinator Rocky Seto played huge roles in Seattle’s success last season. And both are in line for coordinating jobs at some point in the not-so-distant future. That’s a testament to Quinn’s ability as a leader.
8. Rob Ryan, New Orleans Saints
Prior to taking over as the Saints defensive coordinator last year, I considered Ryan to be one of the most overrated coaches in the NFL. He had a disastrous final season with the Cowboys in 2012, as they dropped from 16th to 24th in points against from Ryan’s first year as their coordinator. Prior to that, Ryan saw limited success in the same capacity with the Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns.
Ryan finds himself No. 8 on this list solely due to how he helped the Saints previously historically bad defense become darn near elite last year. They finished in the top five in points allowed and total yards, which was a ridiculous improvement from the prior season. Remember, New Orleans finished dead last in total defense the year before Ryan took over. He did all this while switching from a standard 4-3 defensive front to a scheme that leaned more towards the non-traditional 3-4 model. Now that Ryan has more talent on this side of the ball in 2014, I am excited to see what he can do with the Saints defense.
9. Jack Del Rio, Denver Broncos
Del Rio, who played 11 years in the NFL at linebacker, has always been respected as a defensive mind throughout the league. Just one year after he retired, Del Rio caught on as the New Orleans Saints strength and conditioning coach in 1997. He held that role for two seasons before moving on to the Baltimore Ravens as their linebackers coach under then coordinator Marvin Lewis. It goes without saying that he was a major success in that role, helping the likes of Ray Lewis, Jamie Sharper and Peter Boulware become Pro Bowl players.
With that said, Del Rio’s claim to fame came as the Jacksonville Jaguars head coach from 2003-2011. In his first four seasons in that role, the Jaguars defense finished in the top-10 in yards allowed three times. While they did struggle later in Del Rio’s tenure, that mostly had to do with lackluster talent on defense. After being fired from the Jaguars, Del Rio took over a struggling Broncos defense and helped them to a No. 2 overall ranking in 2012 before injuries caught up with them big time last year.
He runs a 4-3 scheme, but created the model that teams like the Seahawks currently utilize. That is to say, he came up with the idea of possessing a pass-rush outside linebacker in a trandition defensive front. With more talent on the Broncos defense this season, expect him to help them jump back into the top 10 in both points and yards allowed.
10. Todd Bowles, Arizona Cardinals
Bowles worked as a secondary coach in the NFL for 13 seasons prior to being handed the Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator position in 2012. And the results were absolutely disastrous, as they finished 29th in the NFL in points against. Needless to say, his tenure in Philadelphia came to an end after one season.
But what Bowles was able to do with the Cardinals defense last season was nothing short of amazing. They ranked No. 1 in the NFL against the run, sixth in total yards against and seventh in points allowed. The likes of Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu starred in the secondary, which was Bowles’ calling card earlier in his career.