The NFL seemingly has done everything in its power to legislate defensive football out of the game, but the top defensive coaches find a way to stop elite offenses with clever tactics and exceptional execution. While their efforts are rarely lauded in today's fantasy football world, I thought I would dig into the All-22 Coaches Film and make a few phone calls to figure out which defensive coordinators stand out above their peers.
After much consideration, here are the 10 best DCs in the NFL:
10) Kris Richard, Seattle Seahawks
The standout performance of the Seahawks' defense led to head-coaching jobs for the team's previous two defensive coordinators (Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn); Richard could be next in line after the football world gets a look at his defensive brilliance in 2015. The stars from the "Legion of Boom" routinely credit Richard for their collective success as the detailed teacher at the front of the room. Having served as the Seahawks' secondary coach for three seasons prior to being named defensive coordinator, Richard played an integral role in helping Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas become the premier players at their respective positions. His additional development of unheralded prospects like Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane speaks volumes about his teaching skills. Considering the impact the "LOB" had on the Seahawks' dominance over the past few years, expect Richard to keep the defense performing at a high level by leaning on the secondary to anchor the unit with exceptional play in the back end.
9) Gregg Williams, St. Louis Rams
Few defensive coordinators are better at crafting schemes to get pass rushers free hits on the quarterback. Williams is a masterful tactician adept at blowing up pass protection with overload blitzes that create one-on-one opportunities for his top rushers on the line. The constant threat of pressure overwhelms even the most composed passers in the game, leading to turnovers at an alarming rate. Given the Rams' ultra-talented front seven and stout safeties, Williams could take his "Cover 0" (all-out blitz) package to another level this season and solidify his status as one of the top defensive play callers in football.
8) Dennis Thurman, Buffalo Bills
Despite living in Rex Ryan's shadow as a "silent" coordinator, Thurman is respected within the NFL coaching community as one of the top defensive minds in football. He cleverly crafts coverages to coordinate with Ryan's exotic blitz schemes, and his creative "simulated pressures" (disguised four-man rushes) routinely confuse quarterbacks at the top of their drops. Although Ryan will make the majority of the play calls on game day, the brash head coach leans on Thurman's input in key situations to ensure the defense is in the right call based on personnel. Moreover, Ryan will count on his trusted right-hand man to tell him when to ratchet up or dial back the pressure, based on the play of his perimeter defenders. Ryan will certainly get the majority of the praise when the Bills' defense make another run at the No. 1 spot, but it will be the unheralded efforts of Thurman that ultimately key the unit's success.
7) Dean Pees, Baltimore Ravens
It's not easy living up to the lofty standard set by a series of great defensive coordinators in Baltimore, but Pees has continued to extend the Ravens' defensive dominance under his watch. The veteran play caller has kept the Ravens playing at a high level despite inserting a number of young players into the lineup following Baltimore's Super Bowl triumph a few seasons ago. Utilizing an attack-style 3-4 scheme that sends pressure from every angle, Pees forces quarterbacks to make quick decisions under duress. Additionally, he clogs the running lanes with multiple bodies and dares runners to turn the corner against a fast defense. Although the blitz-heavy scheme exposes cornerbacks to countless one-on-one matchups, the fact that the Ravensfinished in the top 10 in total defense last season -- with a cast of former practice-squad members and late-season pickups occupying key spots -- speaks volumes about Pees' coaching prowess.
6) Wade Phillips, Denver Broncos
The veteran defensive architect might be underrated on this list, given his impeccable career résumé. Phillips has built stellar defenses at nearly every stop, including his most recent in Houston. He is a creative 3-4 schemer adept at tailoring his system to his talent, allowing his premier playmakers to disrupt the game at every turn. While unleashing explosive rushers off the edge and moving around destructive interior defenders, Phillips will utilize stunts, loops and blitzes to terrorize opponents at the point of attack. His tactics are certainly impressive to watch, but the fact that he scales down the communication (verbiage) to allow his players to play fast and free is one of the big reasons why he consistently gets exceptional production from his top dogs. And given the impact that stars have on the game, Phillips' adaptability is what makes him one of the top defensive minds working today.
5) Sean McDermott, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers' defensive showing over the past few seasons has not only repaired McDermott's reputation as a bright football mind, but it has fueled speculation that he could be in line for a head-coaching job in the near future. As a disciple of the late Jim Johnson, McDermott favors an aggressive scheme, but he has become an excellent situational play caller during his time in Carolina. He will attack opponents with creative double A-gap blitzes or fall back into conservative zone coverage in optimal situations. Known for his exceptional game planning and teaching methods, McDermott has earned strong reviews of late for helping the Panthers' defense get back on track despite playing a number of young players in key roles along the defensive line and secondary. With the unit expected to dominate the NFC South with a more experienced lineup on the field, the Panthers' defensive coordinator could shoot up the charts when this list is compiled next season.
4) Teryl Austin, Detroit Lions
It is uncommon for a novice play caller to transform an underachieving defense into a juggernaut in his first season, but that is precisely what happened when Austin took over the Lions' defense in 2014. The first-time coordinator oversaw a D that finished second in the NFL in total defense and held the opposition to fewer than 100 rushing yards in 14 games. Utilizing a 4-3 scheme with a variety of line stunts and second-level pressures, Austin exposed opponents' vulnerabilities while masking some of the Lions' deficiencies in the secondary. While the loss of Ndamukong Suh threatens to impact Detroit's defensive prowess, the arrival of Haloti Ngata could allow Austin to dig deeper into his playbook to incorporate the hybrid 3-4 looks that routinely befuddle quarterbacks around the league. Given Austin's experience and exposure to multiple schemes during his time as a highly regarded secondary coach (Austin learned hybrid 3-4 schemes under Ray Rhodes in Seattle and Dean Pees in Baltimore), as well as his superb communication skills and teaching ability, it is not surprising he is already regarded as a top head-coaching candidate heading into the season.
3) Romeo Crennel, Houston Texans
Whenever a coach walks into the meeting room with three Super Bowl rings, players are more apt to pay attention and heed the message. Thus, it is not a surprise that Crennel has consistently put together elite defenses over the past decade-plus as a head coach and defensive coordinator. The wily play caller features a 3-4 base scheme that is predicated on reading and reacting, but the system features a number of checks that allow players to get into ideal play calls based on formation tendencies. Crennel is one of the best in the business at forcing an opponent to play "left-handed" (take away the offense's most important threats or favorite plays) and rely on role players or unscripted plays to move the ball down the field. The strategy worked to perfection during his inaugural season in Houston, with the Texans leading the NFL in takeaways and emerging as a defensive force in the second half of the season. With J.J. Watt also enjoying a historic season under Crennel's direction, it is time to give the Texans' defensive leader props for his extraordinary defensive acumen and superb game planning.
2) Vic Fangio, Chicago Bears
The best defenses in football are not only fundamentally sound, but they exhibit a collective energy, toughness and physicality that overwhelms opponents over the course of the game. Fangio's defenses in San Francisco consistently exhibited those traits. The 49ers ranked in the top five in total defense in each of his four seasons with the team. Also, San Francisco was one of just three teams to post 25-plus takeaways in each of the last four seasons. From a philosophical standpoint, Fangio eschews tricks and gimmicks in favor of a simple system designed to suffocate running lanes and keep the ball in front of the defense on passes. He routinely puts his guys in the proper position to make plays and allows them to play free of mental clutter. Given his recent track record and esteemed reputation, it's only a matter of time before the Bears' defense returns to the ranks of the elite under his tutelage.
1) Rod Marinelli, Dallas Cowboys
The ex-Marine has always been viewed as one of the top defensive coaches in football, but his work with the Cowboys in 2014 represents one of the best coaching jobs in recent history. Marinelli transformed a group of castoffs and misfits into a stout unit by getting his guys to play harder than the opponent. As simple as it sounds, it is hard for most defensive coordinators to get every defender to run to the ball with reckless abandon. Yet, the crusty play caller convinced the 'Boys to swarm the ball like a pack of wolves. Most importantly, the unit tackled as well as any defense in football and attacked the ball with the kind of ferocity that routinely produces turnovers. Granted, the Cowboys' scheme is simple, but the flawless execution and impressive hustle is a testament to Marinelli's ability to get his team to buy into his message.