Top 5 defensive coaches in the NFL

Who are the top-five defensive coaches in the NFL right now? By defensive coaches, I mean guys who actually are instrumental in designing the defensive game plan during the week. The defensive coordinator does it for some teams, but the head coach does it for other teams. When Bill Walsh was the 49ers’ head coach, he had various offensive coordinators but the offense was Walsh’s and he called the plays. Mike Holmgren was the same way when he was the head coach of the Packers and the Seahawks.

Here’s my list of the best defensive coaches in the NFL right now.

1. Pete Carroll — He’s really the defensive coordinator in Seattle, although Dan Quinn has the title. Carroll has developed one of the best defenses ever. The Seahawks’ defensive backfield is Carroll’s crown jewel.

2. Bill Belichick — Like Carroll, Belichick is the real defensive coordinator of the Patriots. No matter who he has on the his defense, the Patriots do not give up a lot of points. Their defense has ranked in the top-10 in points allowed seven-of-the-last-eight seasons.

3. Vic Fangio — He took a consistently middle-of-the-road 49ers defense and turned it into a consistently top-five defense in the league.

4. Rex Ryan — Ryan is behind the Jets’ defense even though he’s the head coach. Ryan has been their head coach for five seasons. Before that, he was the Ravens’ defensive coordinator for four seasons. During those nine seasons, six of Ryan’s defenses have ranked top-five in yards allowed.

5. Mike Zimmer — The Vikings recently hired him to be their head coach. The past six seasons, Zimmer was the Bengals’ defensive coordinator. Before the Bengals hired Zimmer in 2008, they had one of the worst defenses in the league. It took Zimmer just one year to turn the Bengals’ defense into one of the best in the NFL.

Who do you think are the top-five defensive coaches in the NFL?

This article has 77 Comments

  1. Belichick D’s have been getting torched by Better than Average teams for the past 3 yrs and this is why he is consistently drafting Defense in the draft. To prove this he went and got Revis and Browner because his DBs have been getting torched. The rest I will agree with.

    BTW, On NFL AM this morning, SB Champions Terrell Davis and Eric Davis both stated ” Stevie Johnson is a #1 WR and he will open up the SF offense”. This debunks your myth that Stevie is only a #2 WR.

    1. Remember he also trade for Talib in 2011 and lost him in FA this year. I think Dick LeBeau is better but Pittsburgh D got old on him and Pittsburgh failed to draft for the future until now. If this wasn’t the case, LeBeau has had top 5 Ds and that’s why they won 2 SB w Ben Rothlisberger

      1. In my opinion, labeau isint better, bill is just stubborn. He always thought he still had milloy and law on his team. His average cb that he drafts is him thinking straight scheme will get him over. Not happening against peyton. So he finally got smart and went and got beef on the outside. Now his scheme will flourish. He also needed to make sure brady has the D to go with his O

  2. Couldn’t agree more Daddy49er with your Takes,

    Billacheat has been Over rated for quite some time now. And you can now argue that the 49ers have three #1 WR’s.

    1. For lack of really wanting to argue, how can a 3time super bowl winning head coachbe over rated. Enough said!!!

      1. @Steelematic

        Where do I begin with your argument?

        First of all the Topic was about Top DC’s “now” not 10 years ago.

        Secondly not to be redundant but…… when did those 3 Championships occur?

        Lastly although we’re not talking about the GM Hat Billacheat wears I’ll add this anyways. Mr. Cheat has Whiffed the last several years on his Early Round Defensive Draft Picks. So he has that going for him too.

      2. Prince he got busted for Cameragate, he has been to 2 other SBs and lost them both”. Who to say he didn’t use those same cameras to spy on the other teams he beat in the SB? But, check the stats Belichicks D had been getting torched. Heck Denver torched them in Conference Finals then they got torched.

        He has had some good Ds but not now. He’s revamping the D for one last run for Brady. If Montana had these rules now, he would’ve won 6 SBs easy!

    2. 5 Super Bowls appearances since 2000. Imagine what you would say if Harbaw took your Niners to 5. Or won 1. Yep overrated.

      1. Thanks to Walsh and Seifert, Niner fans got to see number five before the Pats went on their run…Just like Walsh and Seifert(Walsh mainly), Belichek is a great coach and certainly not overrated…Harbaugh has been to the last three NFC Championship games and tons Super Bowl. Sure he hasn’t won yet(Super Bowl), but this team is in the discussion to win it now and for the foreseeable future. Good luck to Belichek in trying to find a replacement for Brady, because when he goes so does the relevance in the NFL.

      2. @Jimmy

        I’ll reply just as I did with Steelematic,

        The Topic was about Top DC’s ….NOT HC’s careers.

        You need to learn how to read an article before you start chiming in on something you completely misinterpreted.

  3. Grant, I like your list.

    Pete Carroll does alot of things the 80-90’s 49ers did. D-line depth+rotating D-linemen+talent at DB wins alot of 4th qtrs.

    The tipper for Carrol is having that true “shut down corner.” It gives Carrol an extra man to stack the box, play lurk, blitz, fill gap for zone blitzers and so on. Imagine what Fangio could do if he had a corner to lock on a WR with little or no safety help. The possibilities are endless.

    Greg Manusky, Mike Nolan get honorable mention. If Manuski had Aldon Smith and (a developed) Bowman, I think his defenses would have been close to Fangio’s.

    1. the Niners had a chance to draft that corner, but passed, so who do you blame now?

  4. I have to agree with Daddy49er about LeBeau. He’s the mastermind behind the Steelers zone blitz scheme which has had that D ranked highly most years he’s been the DC there. The D is getting long in the tooth now so they are down on talent at the moment, but his past record should put him in the top 5.

  5. Grant do me a favor and look at the difference between Seattles home D stats VS their road D stats.I’m guessing you will find a much larger differential in Seattles stats at home VS the other coaches you have listed. The technologically created sound advantage Seattle has really is only to their advantage on D. With out that technological advantage i think Carroll may drop about 5 spots.

    1. You make a great point. Though not “amplified”, the sound flaps deliberately direct noise onto the field. The league should look into reinstating the 5 yard procedure penalty… or allow Seattle’s road opponents to broadcast = decibel noise to compensate.

        1. the King Dome was a killer back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In fact it was deafening.

        2. Mary of course every team should play better at home, that’s why I asked Grant to look into the differential between home and away for Seattle then compare it to the differential between home and away games for the teams coached by the other coaches Grant mentioned. My point of my post wasn’t to complain about the noise advantage Seattle has but to put into prespective how much it might effect Pete Carroll’s rating. So Grant what do you say.

          1. Coach I think there’s too many variables. The Seahawks of old lost most of their road games. And to this day, I’m still on pins and needles when we are on the road. And let’s face it, we never did have a decent QB. But in general, we were always missing a complete team.

            Since Wilson and our great defense (2013)(13-0) Seahawks were leading road games except at the end. (Eagles, 49ers, Broncos, K.C., Seahawks in that order, but all 6-2)

            And as Wilson develops, I hope we’ll see a more reliable offense. But if he gets the job done and protects the ball and he and Lynch run out the clock and wear out the defense, I don’t need a flashy Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.

    2. Seattle gave up an average of 15.1 points on the road and 13.8 at home. Not much of a difference.

      1. Jack for that stat to mean anything we have to know who they played at home and away. Just using the eye test in the two games in the reg season I watched them play from beginning to end [49ers] home field seemed make a huge difference. I’m more interested in yards gained than points scored.

        1. If you use the end of year SI Power Rankings as a proxy, Seattle played easier teams at home. Using their non-division regular season games, the mean PR was 22.4 at home (scale of 1-32) vs. 18.8 away. So, some of the underperformance of their road defense is likely due to schedule, not just the 12th man. Obviously this is an imperfect metric as teams peak/trough at various times during the year (e.g. Texans).

  6. Way before Bill Belichick won a SB as a HC of the Patriots, he had already been a part of 3 SB teams:
    As LB’s coach for the ’85 & ’90 Giants, and the DC for the ’96 Patriots. Including his stint with the Pats, that’s 8 SB trips.
    The Giants teams of the mid to late 80’s were quite a thorn in the side of the Niners.
    Spygate will remain part of his legacy but there really should be no doubt that Belichick knows defense.

    1. Then how come the Pats D has been terrible for the past 7 years? Since the defensive stalwarts drafted by bobby greer and parcels left (mcginest bruschi, milloy, law) the Pats D has been in decline. Then after 2007 When Harrison seymore and vrabel left the pats D is historicaly bad year in and year out. Just look for yourself. The pats have taken 10 DBs in the first 2 rounds of the draft and only Chung and Mccourty have panned out. For a defensive genius his defenses sure did suck

      1. Good observation Bos. What this tells us is Belichick the Personnel man has not helped Belichick the HC enough the past few years. For a team that is lauded for how they used to work the draft, they haven’t done a very good job in that area at times.

  7. I know we’re talking curent DCs…but I always liked Monte’s defenses over the years.
    Gotta love that Tampa 2…even though teams are figuring out more ways to defeat it these days.
    Lovie has it down pat too.

    1. Mary, im glad you point out the Walsh Carol connection. See, that why 49er fans know Carol is a bum. Hes from S.F. Look at all the other Walsh disciples like Holmgren, Gruden ,Siefert and Ried . They all had immediate and sustained success. In fact, they would NOT promote Carol. He got passed over multiple times for the HC gig in S.F. And when Carol and everybody else left…..EVERY SINGLE EX-49ER ASSISTANT OUTPERFORMED Carol!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! He washed out of the league!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Other 49er assistants went on and established “the Walsh coaching tree” and carol was an afterthought! Also, all the guys i mentioned carried themselves like men. Carol was an embarrassment to that walsh tree, with his ra-ra in your face gloating! There was no room for a ra-ra cartoon character personality on a family tree of stone cold expressionless coaching assassins

      Out of all those ex 49er assistants…….carol finally won the big one. Too bad it was 20 years too l;ate! for a second rate franchise! .

  8. 1 – Pete Carroll
    2 – Vic Fangio
    3 – Mike Zimmer
    4 – Kevin Coyle
    5 – Bill Belichick

  9. It’s tough to rate defensive coaches or coaches of any kind, because the better players you have, the better coach you are. Pete Carroll has had a good run the past couple of years but the guy has been around forever and was never considered one of the best defensive minds in the NFL before now, so how much is due to Carroll and how much is getting a group of players that fit what he likes to do? Scheme wise, he’s as basic as basic gets, so how can you give him credit for being a great defensive mind? Pete is a good guy who the players like and want to play for. That is his best trait as a Coach; not coming up with great schemes to confuse the other team.

    Belichick is first on the list for me because unlike Carroll he’s done it a long time and been successful a long time. He has average players all over his D right now and they aren’t as good as the SB teams, but his ability to scheme gives them a chance no matter who is on the field.

    1. I agree Rocket. Cheatin Pete’s overrated. He has been very lucky with his recent years late round picks that became 1st round talents. Seattle’s D wouldn’t be as dominant without those lucky picks playing in their secondary.

      1. Carroll has been a top notch defensive coach in the NFL for a long time.

      2. Pete was a decent DC before he failed as a HC. Don’t under estimate his qualifications and talents.

        1. Carroll had one top 5 defense in 12 years as a DC or HC before his past two seasons with the Seahawks. That top 5 defense was the Niners the year after the SB. He was never considered at top defensive Coach before the last couple of seasons where his defense has excelled due to a simple basic system that he can play because of the the players he has. He is not and never has been one of the top defensive Coaches in the NFL. He figured out how to motivate players and honed his skills as a HC at SC. He is now a very good HC.

      3. How ’bout giving credit where credit’s due…Peter Carroll is and has been a great D coach….and He’s got 1 SB as a head coach.

    2. Rocket that’s a very good point but also applies to Fangio. He wasn’t considered top 5 until he got to SF with all the talent he has to work with.

      1. Agreed Coach. Fangio actually had a pretty poor history with multiple years of coordinating the same defense before coming to SF.

    3. was it not Lombardi who said coaches who could diagram plays are a dime a dozen but coaches who could lead are worth their weight in gold?

      1. mike singaltery was a good leader too…..and as soon as we got him outta here a perennial 6-10 team went 13-3!

  10. another opportunity for grant to to place something seahwks above something 49er. as pointed out, pete has had little to zero nfl success until these last 2 years. how good would his D look with carlos rodgers, cris culliver ,donte whitner and dashon goldson!!!?????
    pete is only successful when allowed to cheat!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    USC: payed $ to get the best players
    SEA:adderall abuse
    gimmicky fan noise ( used to be a 5 yard penalty for delay of game. rule quietly disappeared in order to allow fans to impact a game in an attempt to offset negative impact of HDTV. seriously, not making this up! The stadium experience was clearly inferior to say, my 65 inch HD flat screen)

    DB’s that get away with PI every play because ” it seems as if you can hold and grab a wr’s forearms all day! just not his jersey!”

    1. Jshaw, yep that was my first thought also. Grant’s just trolling us with his pro Seattle bias again!

    2. I checked two websites: ESPN released a tally of PED use between 2010-13 and Wikipedia. The only 3 NFL teams that had NOT tested positive during that time frame: Dallas, Kansas City and 49ers.

      1. Mary, how many PED suspensions did your seahwks have? As many as the rest of the league combined right?

        1. jshaw are you flurting with me?? Because I don’t see you paying this kind of attention to any of the guys? It’s kind of cute only it reminds me of kindergarten when the boys used to pull my ponytail. :)

  11. It’s understandable why no one on here is giving Carroll his due. But one thing he does better than anyone in the NFL is create an energy his team thrives on. It’s something many NCAA coaches do well and now Carroll has brought that to the NFL with great success. Clearly the best defensive coach and motivator in the league.

  12. After next season we will be saying that Romeo Cronell is great, number 1 pick and the best rush end n football, Romeo head coach is bad as a d cord…. Look out

  13. I know many of you are on the west coast. When you get the chance answer this. Do you think Goodell is mum on issues such as Aldon Smith because he has to wait and see what happens with Jim Irsay?

    I’ve thought it for a while but it seems Goodell is in a difficult spot, one that I like, because Irsay was caught will pills and Booz on him. I do not think fining him will do anything. You have to hit them where it hurts and that’s drafts picks. What is everyone else’s thoughts.

  14. note to Coach Harbaw:
    both Carroll and Belichick have already
    picked up their Lombardi trophy.
    see Vic Fangio at #3 on this list
    means nothing until… until… until…
    you bring home the bacon
    (Lombardi trophy #6 for the Niners).

    I am the Super Bowl monkey (still on your back).

  15. Aldon Smith will get no jail time in my opinion. Backdoor plea deal from the prosecutor promising to not recommend jail time is my guess. The judge will usually go along with that recommendation. If he can stay out of trouble until July 25th, I expect he’ll get some game checks taken and Goodell to not suspend him any games due to the teams proactive rehabilitation absence…..

    1. I’m all for this since he wouldn’t miss any games, but at the same time not suspended him would almost guarantee the guy gets in trouble again, probably thinking he could get away with murder.

      He needs to be punished.

    2. This is a slippery slope for sure. While I want Aldon on the field, I also see some negative connotations arising if he gets off with no punishment. It’s clear he needs to be sent a message that this behavior will not be accepted any longer. Best thing that can happen imo, is a short Jail stint like 30 days or so, followed by a suspension from the league of about 4 games and a fine. He has to be punished in some way to send the message needed.

  16. 1. Pete Carroll
    I have to give Legion of Boom’s architect his due.
    2. Vic Fangio
    Few defenses can say that they didn’t miss a beat with a stater or two out. Those who play under the Godfather can.
    3. Rob Ryan
    Anybody that can take a ‘putrid beyond the realm of reason’ defense and make it a strength has to be recognized.
    4. Dick LaBeau
    He continues to churn out one nasty defense after another.
    5. Romeo Crennel
    Not having him on the staff is one of the main reasons that Belichick and Brady haven’t won another Super Bowl. Just don’t ask him to coach your whole team.

  17. It’s hard to argue with that list but I can tell you the guy getting alot of notariety in the NFL right now is Billy Davis from the Eagles. When he was with the 49ers, Mike Nolan scapegoated him as the reason for issues with the defense. The real story is that Mike Nolan ran the defense and didn’t let Davis implement his own strategies or have any say on the personnel. Then when things went south Nolan fired Davis as if he were the problem. If the Eagles continue to get better on defense next year, Billy Davis will be a head coach somewhere in the NFL the following year.

  18. Pete Carroll is finally achieving NFL success in his 60’s and he’s a very good HC now, but basing a top 5 list on essentially two years (which is the only top 5 defenses Carroll has had other than his first year with a SB team in SF) is low hanging fruit. Pete Carroll was never thought of as a top 5 defensive Coach before now. His history is full of middling to bottom 3rd defenses more so than dominant 5 units.

    Let’s also keep in mind he’s not doing anything strategically to achieve success here. He’s using his strength at CB which allows him to play 8 in the box the majority of the time. His system is simple and not very inspired. It works because of the players; not the genius of the Coach. That’s not to say he isn’t a good Coach because he is, but rating him the best defensive Coach in football is ridiculous and unwarranted.

      1. Absolutely. Pete is a good guy too. I met him at a booster function while he was at SC and he’s genuine.

        1. He came to my high school once to watch a highly-rated football recruit play baseball. Carroll is surprisingly short.

          1. Yeah short and about 130 lb’s soaking wet. Heck of a nice guy and as I said genuine. What you see in interviews is what you get off the field.

            1. I agree. He sat right in the stands and talked to anyone who said hello to him.

              1. Grant he pretty much sounds like every college head coach i’ve ever met [except for Lute Olson] They are always on. An old friend of mine who spent most of his career coaching div 2 basketball used to say I am recruiting every time i have a conversation. I may be talking to a 5′ 2″ young woman but who knows maybe her brother is a player or her BF is a player so i recruit everyone i meet.

        2. Yeah I recently heard his age and was astonished. And yes a very nice guy. Im an SC fan so I loved him until he went to the hawks. Now all the things I loved about the guy is the same reason I hate him…

          Its like seeing your ex date your enemy….not that that’s ever happened…lol

          1. Leo, I know how you feel. I think all Seahawk fans genuinely worry that PC and John Schneider will leave after these new contracts run out — think they run through 2017.

    1. Pete Carroll is finally achieving NFL success in his 60′s and he’s a very good HC now, but basing a top 5 list on essentially two years (which is the only top 5 defenses Carroll has had other than his first year with a SB team in SF) is low hanging fruit.

      The list is based on the idea of who’s hot right now coaching the defense Rocket.

      1. I understand that. What I’m saying is it’s personnel more than Carroll’s Coaching that should be attributed to their success. I mentioned prior history to show he’s been pretty average as a DC until now. Again, I’m not saying he’s a bad Coach; I’m saying his ability as a Defensive Coach is being great exaggerated. He’s not better than Belichick or Lebeau among others with an extensive history of NFL success and devising defense schemes. He’s benefiting from having the players to run a simple system that allows for more people near the LOS and in turn the flooding of short passing lanes. Pete’s doing a great job as a HC and personnel guy this time around more so than being a defensive mastermind.

    2. The first sentence asks, “Who are the top-five defensive coaches in the NFL right now” and the Seahawks have been in the Top 7 in points allowed the last 3 years.

      1. Jack he is loaded with talent. When he coached D’s that were’nt nearly as talented he was solid but not spectacular. I highly doubt he could accomplish what Ryan did this year with the terrible talent he had. If we are really looking for the best teachers they are probably coaching in the bottom half of the league and getting good results out of bad talent like Ryan

      2. How would you account for strength in personnel? I’d rank Belichick and Rex Ryan over Pete merely because each of those coaches lost top players recently (and neither of those teams had the overall talent on D that Seattle had over the last two years) and their defenses remained effective.

        Remember how great of a D Coordinator Marvin Lewis was with the Ravens? Then he went to the Bengals and their Defense was terrible in his first several seasons. Until their personnel got better. Dan Reeves once said that after the Cowboys drafted Tony Dorsett all of a sudden he was a better running backs coach.

        1. Sacto, Yep Carroll’s benefiting greatly because of talented players, especially in the secondary. He and his staff get credit for assembling the talent, but if we had that secondary it would be Fangio at the top of this list with 3 more trophies for SF.

    3. I agree and the same holds true for Chip Kelly, while I think he’s a great college coach. And I CRINGE when I hear folks use the word elite and Kaepernick, Luck, RG3 and Wilson in the same sentence.

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