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Ranking the defensive coordinators

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By PFW staff

With another "Black Monday" upon us, the focus on potential head-coach candidates has no doubt been intensified.

There is also no doubt that the coordinated efforts of all the teams currently considering head-coaching changes one day after the end of the 2009 regular season will be heavily focused on the league's coordinator ranks.

Although heavy hitters like Mike Shanahan and Bill Cowher are generating the most buzz because of their successful head-coach track records, it's a lot more likely that most teams are opting to target prominent assistants on both sides of the ball. That could be the case more than ever this season, with uncertainty regarding the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement creating more of a cost-conscious mindset and less of an emphasis on big-ticket hires.

It's worth remembering that among the 11 new full-time head coaches entering the 2009 season, only two of them (Eric Mangini and Jim Mora) had previous NFL head-coaching experience. On the other hand, six of the new hires — Jim Schwartz (Detroit), Todd Haley (Kansas City), Josh McDaniels (Denver), Raheem Morris (Tampa Bay), Rex Ryan (N.Y. Jets) and Steve Spagnuolo (St. Louis) — were previously coordinators, including four on the defensive side of the ball (Schwartz, Morris, Ryan and Spagnuolo).

Using considerable feedback from league sources and talent evaluators and a special formula devised by PFW that takes into account numerous variables — including the effect of injuries on each team — PFW presents the following rankings of the league's 2009 defensive coordinators. PFW will break down the league's top offensive coordinators a week from now.

A few points worth making before launching into the rankings:

  • Defensive coordinators, as best showcased in Pittsburgh, are often only as good as their players. When DE Aaron Smith and SS Troy Polamalu are not on the field due to injuries, the best coordinating job in the world cannot replace their talent and contributions to the defense, and their extended absences were factored when evaluating the job that Dick LeBeau did without them.
  • Some coordinators who are learning behind strong, defensive-minded head coaches were downgraded because they have not had the training wheels taken off (Mike Pettine of the Jets, Ken Flajole of the Rams, Chuck Cecil of the Titans).
  • There are other coordinators adversely affected by over-involved head coaches who have disrupted their play-calling rhythm.

Coordinators are ranked from top to bottom, with insiders' comments on each. All quotes were obtained from pro personnel evaluators on the condition of anonymity. Additional responsibilities of coordinators are indicated in parentheses where applicable.



1. Sean McDermott / Eagles — Despite suffering some major injuries at middle linebacker and having to get by with long-in-the-tooth Jeremiah Trotter, the Eagles' defense has remained very formidable. SCOUT'S TAKE: "(McDermott) is a rising star, now. I think a lot of people expected the Eagles to fall off after (former defensive coordinator) Jimmy Johnson passed away, but this kid clearly paid attention. He was with Jimmy 10 years, sitting at the corner of the table eating crumbs and absorbing it all. In some ways — with how creatively he finds ways to bring pressure — I think he might be better than (Johnson). He's got a great feel (for play-calling)."

2. Mike Zimmer / Bengals — SCOUT'S TAKE: "He has done a very good job of solidifying that defense. That was their Achilles' heel until this year. He allowed them to build confidence in themselves. What he is trying to do schematically has taken hold. Everything has taken shape. They were weak up front with their front seven before, and that has totally changed. He is breeding confidence and has done a very good job. You never talked about their defense being a strength before."

3. Mike Nolan / Broncos — Arguably the best move Josh McDaniels made in the offseason was hiring Nolan to coordinate the defense and fix a broken pass defense that Mike Shanahan could never correct despite investing heavily in it. Using a heavy defensive rotation has allowed Elvis Dumervil to flourish, becoming the NFL's leading sack artist. SCOUT'S TAKE: "My hat is off to him. If anyone thought they would be able to do what they have done defensively with the hodgepodge group of (defensive talent) they have, they were lying to you. He has proven he is an excellent defensive coordinator. Now, he showed (in San Francisco) that he was not ready to be a head coach - he had his hand in too many pots, interfered with the defense too much and never could get the offense settled. But when it comes to producing pressure and recognizing matchups, he does a great job."

4. Dom Capers / Packers — Regarded as a master of the quick turnaround, Capers has done another magic trick resurrecting the Packers' defense, putting players in a position to make plays and maximizing the talents of Charles Woodson, who is having his finest season as a pro. SCOUT'S TAKE: "He's done a great job with a very young group. I didn't expect it would be turned around so quickly. He's the master of the zone blitz. (GM Ted) Thompson deserves an assist for the players he drafted. You need the personnel to run that defense, and they filled a lot of needs in the draft."

5. Ron Rivera / Chargers — For having to deal with some major injuries to the defensive line, including anchor Jamal Williams, the Chargers have still fared very well, and Rivera's reputation as a players' coach has not detracted from the effort the Chargers have put forth, as has been the case with others regarded as players' coaches. SCOUT'S TAKE: "How many guys have shown they can coach '30' and '40' fronts equally well. They clearly did not realize what they had in Chicago. What he has done in San Diego has been more impressive."

6. Dick LeBeau / Steelers — Regarded as one of the league's best, LeBeau watched his defense slip this season, in large part due to personnel shortcomings that limited his creativity. SCOUT'S TAKE: "I think LeBeau has struggled a lot not because of the scheme or because of anything he is doing differently but because his playmakers are not there. So much of what they do is predicated on Troy Polamalu being healthy, and so the defense is not close to the same. You can draw it up however you want, but you are not going to have the same type of success if guys don't fly around the same way because they are not on the field. Some of their other injuries, particularly on the defensive line, have cost them. They were more thin up front without Aaron Smith, their (D-line) rotation was not as deep, they were all getting worn down, and (LeBeau) couldn't run the defense the same way. They have been running a much more conservative package."

 7. Gregg Williams / Saints — The Saints' secondary took some big hits, losing both starting cornerbacks to injuries, but was still very competitive when it plugged in veterans off the street (Mike McKenzie and Chris McAlister). The defense managed to rank near the top of the league in takeaways and excelled at stopping offenses in the red zone. SCOUT'S TAKE: "The key to (Williams') defense is having a really instinctive, rangy middle linebacker (Jonathan Vilma) and a supersmart safety (Darren Sharper), and they have both of those things. Where you have to give him a lot of credit is for the adjustments he makes. His system can be overly complex, but he excels at anticipating and diagnosing how teams are trying to attack him and adjusting."

8. Larry Coyer / Colts — Despite having a smallish, injury-prone defense and cycling a lot of players through the training room, as well as playing with two rookie corners (Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey) for much of the year, Coyer has found ways to make up for it. SCOUT'S TAKE: "(Under Coyer), they are blitzing the corners like they have never done before. They are lining up (DE Dwight) Freeney in different places. The defense is a lot more aggressive, and they are playing a lot more man coverage. They are creating more interceptions disguising coverages and make it look like cover-2. They have surprised everyone."

9. Greg Mattison / Ravens — A longtime college coaching assistant, Mattison has proven his 38 years of coaching experience can translate to the pro ranks, as he has done a stellar job replacing Rex Ryan. SCOUT'S TAKE: "If I needed a (defensive coordinator), I'd take a hard look at Baltimore; Rex Ryan and Mike Nolan both came out of there. That is the hottest defense in the league right now. You got to give them credit — they run a lot of games and find ways to create pressure."

10. Leslie Frazier / Vikings — Hailing from the proven Jimmy Johnson school of defense, in addition to winning a Super Bowl at Tony Dungy's side and playing for Mike Ditka, Frazier's star is on the rise. The loss of defensive leader MLB E.J. Henderson and the contributions of an ailing CB Antoine Winfield late in the season have to be considered. SCOUT'S TAKE: "I don't like the defense they run — they need to correct some coverages and get better play in the secondary — but (Frazier) has made some adjustments. They should be better, but they get after the quarterback." ... "He started out the year very strong. Due to some injuries, he has had to make some adjustments. Despite the points they have given up the last few weeks, they still been very consistent." ... "He has the type of temperament to be a better head coach than a coordinator. He sees the big picture."

11. Mike Pettine / Jets — Pettine was the first hire made by head coach Rex Ryan when he came to New York. An innovative defensive mind with technical savvy, Pettine still gives great leeway to Ryan on defense, but the pair — who help the Jets rank at the top of the league in defensive efficiency and run the only defense holding opponents to under five yards net per pass play — know how to create pressure. Pettine was instrumental in the development of OLB Terrell Suggs. SCOUT'S TAKE: "Don't think they have not missed those guys (Pettine and Ryan) in Baltimore. What they do looks a lot like what I have been watching in Baltimore the last few years."

12. Billy Davis / Cardinals — The ability to outscheme opponents and create takeaways are both a credit to Davis. SCOUT'S TAKE: "Look at the way Arizona outcoached the (expletive) out of Minnesota. Brett Favre loves to push it downfield — especially in a prime-time game, you know his ego is going to take over. So what did Arizona do? Instead of having the linebacker get great depth in his drop and take away the middle in cover-2, they just lined up (MLB Karlos) Dansby 15 yards deep in the middle to take away the seam and rushed three, knowing Brett will not run. It was a brilliant move."

13. Perry Fewell (interim head coach) / Bills — The Bills have taken more defensive snaps than anyone and have dealt with more injuries at linebacker and safety than anyone. Yet they still have been competitive defensively. SCOUT'S TAKE: "Fewell is a hell of a coach. He's a very good teacher, and it's difficult to find guys who can (correct) technical flaws the way he can. The defense has not been the problem there. If they can keep him (as defensive coordinator), they should."

14. Greg Manusky / Niners — One of the NFL's stouter teams near the goal line, led by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Patrick Willis, the Niners became known for their fourth-down stands and red-zone efficiency. SCOUT'S TAKE: "They are very active, very physical and a very tough-minded group. I don't know how much of that is Manusky and how much is (head coach Mike) Singletary, but it don't matter who it is — you know you will be in for a very physical game with this team. They have guys that can fly to the ball. They do a good job of getting the right people in the right places doing the right things." ... "Some of their coaching decisions I have to question. How do you continue letting Michael Lewis bracket DeSean Jackson after he blows by him repeatedly (in Week 15). They can be better making adjustments, but they get their players to play very hard. You have to respect that."

15. Greg Blache / Redskins — Blache has been one of the few bright spots in a dysfunctional franchise. SCOUT'S TAKE: "He quietly has done a very good job. When you watch them play, you don't realize a lot of times that they are in as many games as they are, just because you hear so much about their offensive futility. But they make a lot of plays defensively and fly to the ball. That defense is what has kept them from being blown out of a bunch of games."

16. Clancy Pendergast / Chiefs — With Romeo Crennel expected to be added to the Chiefs' staff, Pendergast's supporting cast could strengthen, but the Chiefs will need to add some pass rushers for the defense to take hold. SCOUT'S TAKE: "They have had a rough time — but a lot of it has had to do with transitioning '40' personnel to a '30' system and playing with a lot of young talent. It's been a transition year. They struggled last season, and the product on the field has not gotten much better. I would chalk up a lot of it to not having the personnel in place yet."

17. Wade Phillips (head coach) / Cowboys — After taking over the defense last season and letting go of Brian Stewart, the Cowboys have been without a coordinator in title, clearly showing that it is Phillips' job. SCOUT'S TAKE: "Guys play hard for Wade — you have to respect that. He's got a good situation not worrying about the offense at all and just running the 'D.' "

18. Casey Bradley / Seahawks — Injuries need to be factored in when weighing the overall product in Seattle, and league insiders are bullish on Bradley's coaching upside. SCOUT'S TAKE: "When you look at how the play of Tampa's linebackers has dropped off — Barrett Ruud is not playing as fundamentally sound as he did last year — you can see how much they are missing Bradley. He's a great fundamental teacher, but he's still growing as a coordinator. There is a lot more to worry about, and you never know how much the head coach is getting in the way. (Jim) Mora has had a tendency to meddle."

19. Paul Pasqualoni / Dolphins — Miami has not been able to generate enough takeaways or control momentum, but Pasqualoni receives high marks around the league for his coaching prowess. SCOUT'S TAKE: "He is one the best teachers I have ever been around. They are getting a lot out of some young players, and he's a big reason for that. You can question some of the X's and O's, but he is solid all the way around. He'd be on my short list for a head job if I were hiring."

20. Frank Bush / Texans — How much the Texans benefited from changing their defensive staff remains debatable, but with two linebackers headed to the Pro Bowl (DeMeco Ryans and rookie Brian Cushing), the Texans stand out. SCOUT'S TAKE: "I don't know if anyone is getting more out of their linebackers than they are — and that's always been (Bush's) forte. But I don't know if the rest of the group is playing to their abilities. And how much of that is personnel and how much is coaching is for debate. But you got to give Frank credit for the way those linebackers are playing."

21. Rob Ryan / Browns — The input of Browns head coach Eric Mangini must be mentioned when talking about Ryan. SCOUT'S TAKE: "They started the year out a little shaky, probably more so because they were trying to figure out what they (had) and used all those different looks. As the season has gone on, they have settled more into what they are doing. They have started to show more fire despite being beaten up. The comparison in the two Pittsburgh games shows the way they have come, as far as learning and applying concepts."

22. Lovie Smith (head coach) / Bears — Though Bob Babich maintained his defensive-coordinator title to coach the linebackers, Smith coordinates the defense, with great help from D-line coach/assistant head coach Rod Marinelli. Personnel utilization and an inability to maximize talent has been a problem, while the loss of MLB Brian Urlacher had an effect, as well. SCOUT'S TAKE: "It has looked a lot like what they did in Detroit last year. They have been blown out in too many games this year and are getting run over. They struggle in the second half because they get outcoached and cannot adjust. Some of the calls are so bad it almost makes me think they are trying to get fired — no one can be so dumb. ... "They could have laid down at the end of the year, and they kept on fighting. They beat a good Minnesota team, but they still had big problems adjusting in the second half."

23. Dean Pees / Patriots — A youth movement highlighted by the preseason trade of Richard Seymour created new challenges for the Patriots. SCOUT'S TAKE: "They have struggled trying to infuse youth into packages. It's been a combination of youth, injuries and shifting to more 4-3 looks, but it clearly has been a transition year, and you have to question the end result. When you have an offense consistently go for it on fourth down in any circumstance, you have to question how much trust they have in the defense. It's been very porous — up front, in the middle and in the back, there are holes."

24. Brian VanGorder / Falcons — A rash of injuries and a young defense forced the Falcons to adapt their approach. SCOUT'S TAKE: "(Head coach) Mike Smith's fingerprints are all over the defense, and the inability to generate enough pressure to relieve a beat-up secondary has been an issue."

25. Mel Tucker / Jaguars — Although a defensive coordinator in title, Tucker gave way to head coach Jack Del Rio, who assumed control of the defense last offseason. The defense has struggled, failing to create pressure. SCOUT'S TAKE: "They stayed on the field too long and were terrible on third downs. They are working with a young team, but you got to find a way to get to the quarterback more. The play-calling was too predictable."

26. Chuck Cecil / Titans — With head coach Jeff Fisher having to spend more time overseeing the defense after the loss of Jim Schwartz, the Titans struggled early in the season as Cecil received on-the-job defensive-coordinator training without the services of the Titans' biggest impact player In 2008 (DT Albert Haynesworth, who signed with Washington). SCOUT'S TAKE: "He has done an OK job. That group was very inconsistent to start the year, in the process of going 0-6. Some of that is tied into the injuries they had in the secondary that they were dealing with. As the season has progressed, I think they quickly realized the loss of Haynesworth required a bigger adjustment than they anticipated, with the effect it has had on their rotations. You don't think of them as the Titans' defense of the past few years anymore, where you know you are going to really struggle to deal with them."

27. Gunther Cunningham / Lions — Still very much enduring growing pains as they strengthen a weak roster, the Lions will require some patience. SCOUT'S TAKE: "What's the old adage — coaches are only as good as their players? They don't have a lot to work with (in Detroit.) They are running a 4-3 front with multiple pressure packages like (Cunningham) did in Kansas City and Tennessee when he was with (Jim) Schwartz. ... Oh boy, they are trying to implement and figure out who they have as far as personnel goes. The injury factor has been big for the team overall; it has cost them with the learning curve of younger players. Overall, (Cunningham) has done a solid job — they still fight hard on defense. It's not the most talented group, but they get after it pretty good."

28. Ken Flajole / Rams — The Rams' defense is clearly first-year head coach Steve Spagnuolo's baby. The unit has been tested mightily this season with an atrocious offense that has not been able to move the ball through the air, and this will continue to stress the defense until it is corrected. If anyone were to question how little progress the Rams have been able to make with a talent-starved roster, consider how much the Giants have suffered since Spagnuolo departed. SCOUT'S TAKE: "(The Rams) are very similar to Washington offensively. It's the defense that was keeping the team in the game. It's not a great unit as far as talent, and they have had some injuries to key guys, but you can see that they are learning and growing each week. And you can see that what they are trying to teach is starting to sink in."

29. John Marshall / Raiders — The JaMarcus Russell effect has dragged down the entire organization and too often put the defense in bad positions. SCOUT'S TAKE: "The Raiders have been very inconsistent overall. Their defense is still predicated on tremendous athletes making plays. It's been a roller-coaster ride from last year. They finished strong last year, started the year poorly and are finishing somewhat strong. The defense is the reason the team has been in games, so you have to give them some credit. Statistics won't be reflective of how they have played because of how often the offense puts them in bad positions."

30. Bill Sheridan / Giants — Hired to maintain systematic continuity, Sheridan disappointed in his first year in his new role. Changes could be on the way in New York after the Giants struggled on a number of levels. SCOUT'S TAKE: "Red-zone struggles have been a major problem, and some of their most talented players (Osi Umenyiora) have become frustrated by a lack of playing time. 'Spags' (former D-coordinator Steve Spagnuolo) was a players' coach, and Sheridan has had a difficult time getting players to respond the same way."

31. Raheem Morris (head coach) / Buccaneers — Jim Bates opened the season as the Buccaneers' defensive coordinator, but Morris relieved him of his duties after 10 games, taking over the position that Jon Gruden had hired him to fill before being fired himself. But little improvement has been made, with a pass defense that gives up too many plays, and a run defense that has been among the worst in the league. SCOUT'S TAKE: "Boy, do they miss (former defensive coordinator) Monte Kiffin. He was the glue to that organization. As soon as it became known that he was leaving late last season, everything fell apart."

32. Ron Meeks / Panthers — Meeks was let go by Jim Caldwell in Indianapolis, and his simple approach forced head coach John Fox to become more involved in the defense and find ways to take advantage of Julius Peppers and a ball-hawking secondary. SCOUT'S TAKE: "He's not a proven commodity as a defensive coordinator. John Fox made some bad choices adding to his staff and has ended up having to overcoach himself. The run defense was a problem for Meeks when he was in Indy — it was too vanilla — and little has changed (since he arrived) in Carolina."

Next Monday: Ranking the offensive coordinators


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