PFN Iconic

Who Are the Best Defensive Coordinators in NFL History? Ranking Top 10 DCs of All Time

Who are the best defensive coordinators in NFL history? We're ranking the top 10 all-time DCs, from Vic Fangio to Bill Belichick.

Who are the best defensive coordinators in NFL history? While many of the league’s most outstanding defensive play-callers went on to become successful head coaches, some DCs were meant to stick in a top lieutenant role.

Let’s rank the NFL’s best defensive coordinators of all time, beginning with one of two active DCs on our list.

Top 10 Defensive Coordinators in NFL History

10) Vic Fangio

The designer of the NFL’s defensive meta over the past decade or so, Vic Fangio was Public Enemy No. 1 for Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, and others who stemmed from the Mike Shanahan offensive system.

While Fangio was a DC in the 1990s, he rose to fame during his stint with the Jim Harbaugh-led San Francisco 49ers, then thrived as the Chicago Bears’ play-caller under Matt Nagy.

If you’ve watched the NFL recently, you know what Fangio’s scheme looks like: Little to no blitzing, two-high shells, and Cover-6 coverage with pre-snap disguise. He has disciples all over the league and is one of the league’s most influential defensive minds of the past two decades.

9) Monte Kiffin

Along with then-Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Tony Dungy, Monte Kiffin developed the Tampa-2 defense in the mid-1990s, inspiring a generation of coaches after him to deploy the same scheme. Kiffin’s attacking defenses prioritized speed, required a do-it-all middle linebacker, and practiced a bend-but-don’t-break approach.

After Dungy’s dismissal, Kiffin stayed with the Bucs and won Super Bowl XXXVII alongside new Tampa Bay HC Jon Gruden. After leaving the Buccaneers in 2008, Kiffin has primarily worked with his son, former NFL and current collegiate head coach Lane Kiffin.

8) Tom Landry

Although Tom Landry made his stripes as the two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, he was also an excellent defensive play-caller.

As the New York Giants’ defensive coordinator from 1954-59, Landry was a true innovator. He devised the 4-3 defense, adding a middle linebacker and creating the front alignment still used in the NFL today. As Dallas’ HC, Landry also invented the “Flex” defense, a gap scheme that allowed for increased flexibility.

7) Bud Carson

The coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ vaunted 1970s “Steel Curtain” defenses, Bud Carson helped construct one of the best units in NFL history.

Defensive lineman Joe Greene, linebacker Jack Lambert, and cornerback Mel Blount each earned individual awards under Carson’s tutelage, while the Steelers won two Super Bowls with Carson leading the defense.

Although Pittsburgh didn’t secure the Lombardi after the 1976 campaign, Carson’s efforts that season were legendary. After losing quarterback Terry Bradshaw in Week 5, the Steelers’ defense recorded five shutouts in their final nine games, allowing just total touchdowns, five field goals, and 3.1 points per game during that stretch. Eight of the unit’s 11 starters were selected to the Pro Bowl.

6) Dom Capers

Dom Capers will turn 74 years old in August, but he’s still involved in the NFL. Frank Reich hired Capers as a senior defensive assistant with the Carolina Panthers last offseason, and the veteran coach is sticking around under new head coach Dave Canales.

Capers worked as a DC for the Steelers (1992-94), Jacksonville Jaguars (1999-2000), Miami Dolphins (2006-07), and Green Bay Packers (2009-17), winning Super Bowl XLV with the Packers after the 2010 season. While his 48-80 record as an NFL head coach leaves much to be desired, Capers always got the most out of his defenses.

5) Wade Phillips

Wade Phillips was much more successful as a head coach (82-64) than Capers, but he was still viewed as a coach who was best in a defensive coordinator role.

Phillips, whose NFL DC tenure dates back to 1981, could almost always promise instant success as a coordinator.

When Phillips took over in 2011, the Houston Texans went from 29th in scoring defense to second. He did the same thing for the Denver Broncos while winning Super Bowl 50, then helped turn around the Los Angeles Rams’ defense under McVay from 2016 to 2017.

4) Dick LeBeau

Modern NFL defense might not look like it does without Dick LeBeau’s influence.

Considered a defensive football savant, LeBeau invited the “fire zone” defense, in which pass rushers can attack the quarterback from unpredictable positions on the field. With blitzers coming from anywhere and unexpected players dropping into coverage, LeBeau quickly created confusion for opposing offenses.

LeBeau was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a player in 2010. During his second stint as the Steelers’ DC from 2004-14, he won two Super Bowls, one each with head coaches Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin.

3) Steve Spagnuolo

Steve Spagnuolo, the top defensive mind in the NFL in 2024, could move up this list if the Kansas City Chiefs keep dominating the defensive side of the ball.

Patrick Mahomes is the best football player on Earth, but the Chiefs wouldn’t have won their third Super Bowl in five tries without Spagnuolo coaching the club’s defense.

Of course, that’s not all Spagnuolo has done in the NFL. During his first stint as the New York Giants’ DC (2007-08), Spags upset the previously undefeated New England Patriots, shutting down arguably the greatest offense in league history en route to a Super Bowl XLII.

He’s the only NFL coordinator to win a Super Bowl with two different organizations.

2) Buddy Ryan

The Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator for eight seasons under head coach Mike Ditka, Buddy Ryan invented the 46 defense and helped craft one of the best units in league history.

The 1985 Bears defense is the stuff of legends. With future Hall of Famers like Mike Singletary, Richard Dent, and Dan Hampton, Ryan’s defense allowed just 12.8 points per game, leading the NFL in scoring, yards, and takeaways. Chicago went 15-1 during the regular season before posting a dominant 46-10 win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX.

1) Bill Belichick

He’s not only arguably the best NFL coach of all time, Bill Belichick is also the top defensive coordinator in the history of the league.

Working under Bill Parcells with the Giants from 1985-90, Belichick won Super Bowls XXI and XXV as the club’s DC. In Super Bowl XXV, Belichick’s defense shut down Jim Kelly and the Buffalo Bills, who led the NFL in scoring in 1990 and had put up 51 points against the Raiders in the AFC title game. His game plan from the victory is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

After becoming the Patriots’ head coach in 2000, Belichick was heavily involved with New England’s defensive processes. He shut down Los Angeles Rams RB Marshall Faulk en route to an upset in Super Bowl XXXVI. The Pats also won Super Bowls after 2003 and 2004, ranking first and second in defensive scoring in those respective years.

Three more Lombardis followed in the 2010s, including after the 2018 campaign when Belichick’s Patriots stifled McVay and the high-flying Rams in Super Bowl LIII. New England held Los Angeles — which ranked second in points and yards during the regular season — to a single field goal.