Calling defensive plays is tougher than ever in the NFL with talented quarterbacks and rules that favor offense, but someone has to do it. Here's our ranking of the top defensive play-callers heading into the 2021 season.
Few would argue with the claim is the best head coach and defensive mind in NFL history. Even before winning six Super Bowls with one of the most consistently strong defenses of the last two decades in New England, Belichick helped the Giants win two Super Bowls as defensive coordinator under Bill Parcells.
After a one-year stint as Broncos defensive coordinator in 2010, Martindale has reemerged as one of the best coordinators in the league with Baltimore since 2018. His defense has plenty of talent, but Martindale's scheme and disguise have helped the Ravens finish third place or better in points allowed in three consecutive seasons. Even nearing age 60, he's a possible head coaching candidate in the near future for good reason.
Butler has served as Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator since 2015, and over that time the unit has been consistently elite. He deserves praise for the unit's stability despite a shuffling linebacker corps and secondary, and the Steelers peaked at third in points and yards allowed last season.
Bowles' time as head coach of the Jets from 2015-2018 wasn't as successful as hoped, but he's re-established himself as an elite coordinator under Bruce Arians. He architected an elite defense under Arians in Arizona during 2013-2014 before going to New York, and the Bucs improved more than 20 points in points allowed from 2019 to 2020 with an influx of young talent.
Allen struggled in two-plus years as head coach of the Raiders from 2012-2014, but he's likely to get another opportunity due to his success as a coordinator in his next act. the Saints defense has shown consistent improvement since he took over in 2015, going from worst in the league to fifth-best in points allowed last year.
Zimmer had an accomplished and proven career as an NFL defensive coordinator and play-caller with Dallas, Atlanta, Cincinnati, and the Vikings before Minnesota's decline last year. He deserves a mulligan due to the bevy of injuries, ending the team's streak of five consecutive seasons finishing top 10 in points allowed. He likely needs a full rebound in 2021 to keep his standing.
Fangio was an accomplished defensive coordinator with nearly 20 years of NFL experience before getting a head coaching job in 2019. That experience likely encouraged him to keep calling plays while wearing the head coach headset. After a good year in 2019, Denver's defense regress last season with a bevy of major injuries, but there are few defenses in recent memory better than the one Fangio orchestrated with the Bears in 2018. The return of Von Miller and a further influx of talent gives Fangio the chance to approach that level this season.
Pees' coaching resume is long and accomplished, serving as a defensive coordinator for the 14th season with his fourth team. He's led elite defenses with the Patriots, Ravens, and Titans, and has come out of retirement for the difficult task of leading the Falcons. He should be the right man for the job, with eight top 10 finishes in points allowed.
While Spagnuolo failed as a head coach with the Rams from 2009-2011, there are few more accomplished defensive coordinators in the history of the league. He's won the Super Bowl with two different organizations, helping halt the Patriots' perfect season in 2007 and turning around the Chiefs defense in 2019. Spags has overseen a successful transition to the 4-3 in KC, helping the defense rank in the top 10 in points scored in consecutive seasons.
So far, Staley has been NFL coaching look easy. After only one year as the defensive coordinator with the Rams in 2020, he was hired as Chargers head coach. The hype was for good reason, as the Rams were No. 1 in yards and points after years as a college coach and NFL outside linebackers coach. Time will tell if he's able to wear multiple hats successfully in his new role.
Eberflus has regularly been a head coaching candidate due to the performance of Indy's defense since he was hired in 2018. He was retained by Frank Reich after Josh McDaniels backed out of the head coaching position, and has been one of the team's greatest assets, finishing 10th in points allowed in two of three seasons with the Cover 2 scheme.
Del Rio has a wealth of head coaching experience between the Jaguars and Raiders, but he also led a strong defense in Denver from 2012-2014. His current unit in Washington could be his most talented, and it showed last season finishing fourth in points and second in yards allowed.
Frazier has been an NFL coach since 1999, with stints as a defensive backs coach, coordinator, and head coach. He was hired in 2017 to coordinate the Bills defense when Sean McDermott took over, and although inconsistent, the Buffalo defense has remained a strength. The unit finished in the middle of the pack last season after allowing the second-fewest points in the league in 2019.
Bradley's dominant Seahawks defense in 2011-2012 earned him a head coaching opportunity with the Jaguars. After an up and down four-year stint in Jacksonville, he's coordinated defense with the Chargers and now rival Raiders. His defenses have featured four top 10 finishes in points allowed over eight seasons, but he has a tall task with a Raiders defense that has been consistently bad in recent years.
Quinn is well known as the Falcons head coach from 2015-2020, leading the team to a Super Bowl in 2016. Before that time, he led an elite Seahawks defense in 2013-2014, and Dallas is optimistic that he can help a defense that was historically bad last year. He will have his hands full with a team that's still developing at all three levels, and Atlanta's defense was in the bottom half of the league over the last four seasons.
Joseph saw a quick ascent from defensive coordinator in Miami in 2016 to a two-year tenure as a head coach in Denver. After struggling there, he's entering his third season with Arizona. The Cardinals defense has been in a rebuild with talent deficiencies, especially on the backend, but saw rapid improvement from fifth worst in points allowed last season to 12th best. He still faces obstacles this season with a terrible secondary, but the tandem of Chandler Jones and J.J. Watt on the edges could offset the weaknesses.
After serving as Denver's defensive coordinator in 2017-2018, Woods received a second chance under Kevin Stefanski in Cleveland last year. The Browns defense ranked in the middle of the pack in points (21st) and yards (17th), but expect improvement this year after improvements in the secondary.
Smith is best remembered serving as Bears head coach from 2004-2012 and Buccaneers head coach in 2014-2015, but before that time helped fix a Rams defense as coordinator from 2001-2003 with the Tampa 2 scheme he learned under Tony Dungy. After some time as a college head coach at Illinois, he could face tough sledding with a talent-deficient Texans squad.
After an excellent NFL career, Norton has had a nice run as defensive coordinator of the Raiders and Seahawks. He deserves credit for keeping Seattle's defense stable in spite of nearly a full rebuild, though the unit has finished no better than 11th in points allowed.
Boyer has strong results to show for his one season as defensive coordinator in Miami, as the Dolphins improved rapidly and finished sixth in points allowed. His previous experience was as a defensive assistant in New England and Miami.
After paying his dues as an NFL defensive assistant, Graham got his first coordinator job with Miami in 2019 before going north to New York last season. While Miami's defense finished last in the league in a season in which they arguably tanked, New York's defense showed improvement last year, ranking ninth-best in points allowed. A product of the Bill Belichick coaching tree, Graham is on a clear head coaching track.
Morris has big shoes to fill replacing Brandon Staley, who led the Rams to be ranked No. 1 last year. While he was head coach in Tampa Bay from 2007-2011, Morris got only his first opportunity as an NFL defensive coordinator in Atlanta last year before being promoted to interim head coach in the middle of the season.
Ulbrich got his feet wet as a coordinator with the Falcons last year after Dan Quinn was fired. He previously had experience coaching the team's linebackers but has a great opportunity to call plays under former 49ers defensive mastermind Robert Saleh with the Jets.
Barry is replacing Mike Pettine as the Packers defensive coordinator and has high expectations on a team with Super Bowl aspirations. He has previous experience in the role with Detroit in 2007-2008 and Washington in 2015-2016 but has never led a defense that finished in the top half of the league in points allowed.
After an extensive career as a college coordinator, Snow got his first opportunity to coordinate an NFL defense last season under Matt Rhule. Carolina finished 18th in points allowed, though that was a more than satisfactory performance for a defense that was uprooted the previous offseason and starting several rookies.
Anarumo enters his third season coordinating Cincinnati's defense after serving in the role as an interim with the Dolphins in 2015. The Bengals have shuffled personnel, especially in the secondary, but have yet to find their bearings under Anarumo, finishing 25th in points allowed in 2019 and 22nd last season.
Bowen is getting his first chance as a defensive coordinator this year after serving as an assistant for the Texans and Titans. He following Mike Vrabel to Tennessee and takes over a defense that really struggled last year, finishing 24th in points allowed and 28th in yards allowed.
An accomplished defensive line coach, Cullen is getting his first opportunity to coordinate a defense this year. There could be some growing pains with a young Jaguars defense that allowed the second-most points in the NFL last season.
Desai has been promoted quickly through the college and NFL ranks, and is getting his first coordinator job at age 38 following Chuck Pagano's retirement. He previously served as a defensive quality control and safeties coach with the team.
Gannon is getting his first chance to coordinate an NFL defense after serving as a defensive assistant with the Falcons, Titans, Vikings, and Colts. He has big shoes to fill after Philadelphia's success under Jim Schwartz.
An accomplished Pro Bowl cornerback during his playing days, Glenn is trying his hand at coordinating a defense for the first time this season. He has extensive experience as a defensive backs coach but will have his hands full taking over last year's worst defense.
Ryans had a great career as a Pro Bowl linebacker in Houston and was promoted to replace Robert Saleh this year in San Francisco. He's had time to learn under Saleh as a coordinator since 2017 and has plenty of talent to work with if the 49ers can stay healthier this year.
Seth Trachtman is a fantasy sports expert and diehard Kansas City Chiefs fan still hoping for a Super Bowl win during his lifetime. He doesn't often Tweet, but when he does, you can find him on Twitter @sethroto.