NFL News & Analysis

Ranking the NFL's best defensive play callers ahead of the 2021 season

Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Don Martindale during an AFC Wild Card playoff football game against the Los Angeles Chargers at M&T Bank Stadium. The Chargers defeated the Ravens 23-17. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2021 NFL Draft and free agency now well in the rearview mirror, OTAs and minicamp are giving us some much-needed clips of our favorite players in action. In preparation for the 2021 NFL season, PFF has ranked the numerous position groups, posted simulation results for the campaign and discussed enticing bets on the PFF Daily Betting Podcast and the PFF Forecast.

We've been fairly buttoned up about our coaching rankings, which we’ve cited a number of times in other content pieces and use in our PFF Greenline and fantasy products, but the method is pretty straightforward: Using PFF grades and play-by-play data, we handicap how a team should have performed on each play using expected points added. We then look at how the team actually performed on that play, weighing such outcomes by how often they happen and how noisy said plays are.

Thus, a coach who is repeatedly getting better production out of their players on first and second downs will rate highly, while a coach with bad red-zone variance will mostly be forgiven by a metric like this.

After listing out the top head coaches and top offensive play callers heading into the 2021 season, we now present the six defensive play callers with the highest ratings ahead of the campaign. (Last year’s list can be found here.)

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1. Brandon Staley, Los Angeles Chargers

Any list that doesn’t have Staley at the top is probably wrong, and while he moves across town from the Rams to the Chargers, his work under Sean McVay in many ways saved a franchise that had no business being in the playoffs in 2020.

Leonard Floyd (55 pressures, involved in 13 sacks) and Darious Williams (sixth among NFL cornerbacks in WAR in 2020) played better than ever before, while John Johnson III and Troy Hill earned big-money deals elsewhere. The Rams paced the NFL in yards per play allowed by three-tenths of a yard in 2020, an outcome that if done for the Chargers will give the franchise just its second playoff berth since 2013.

2. Don Martindale, Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens are one of the league’s shining lights in terms of using data and building their defense from back-to-front, opting to pay the likes of Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters while jettisoning Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue in favor of cheaper, but just as effective, options — such as Tyus Bowser — this offseason. 

Baltimore withstood the release of star safety Earl Thomas III in the preseason and still finished seventh in yards per play allowed. The Ravens have been able to use over 60% of their salary cap on the defensive side of the ball the past few seasons, but with Lamar Jackson’s contract extension on the horizon, and Ronnie Stanley’s already signed, the job for Martindale will be harder in future years.

3. Keith Butler, Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers tied for second in the NFL in yards per play allowed while generating pressure and knocking down the quarterback both at a rate roughly four percentage points higher than any other defense in 2020. This was despite the fact that Bud Dupree and Devin Bush were injured for much of the season.

The Steelers were the NFL’s best team in terms of limiting positive expected points added plays, and they stayed among the league’s top units despite a turnover rate that decreased by roughly one-third from their absurd 2019 season to 2020.

4. Josh Boyer, Miami Dolphins

In just the second season of the Dolphins' rebuild, and Boyer’s first as their defensive coordinator, they fielded one of the league’s best defenses, allowing them to win double-digit games for just the second time in over a decade. The Dolphins, ranking just 14th in pass-rushing grade, were able to secure a league-leading 18 interceptions, led by Xavien Howard’s 10. Emmanuel Ogbah, who has long been a bust in the NFL since being drafted No. 32 overall in 2016, produced nine sacks himself.

While a bit noisy, the Dolphins' 2020 performance has a decent chance of carrying forward due to the front office's continued effort to secure draft capital — one piece of which turned into Jaelan Phillips in April, the draft’s best edge defender.

5. Todd Bowles, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers were on the precipice of good things defensively by virtue of a 2019 performance that, while near the bottom of the league in scoring defense, was solid in terms of efficiency metrics, such as expected points added or yards per play allowed. They’ve spent seven Day 2 draft picks on the secondary recently, and while it didn’t make sense to us at the time, research suggests that the capital used on Vita Vea was well spent. Bowles’ time with the Jets should be looked on more forgivingly given the direction the franchise went once he left, and once that’s done, it’s pretty clear he’s making a case for another head coaching gig in 2022.

6. Leslie Frazier, Buffalo Bills

After struggling some in Minnesota and Tampa Bay, Frazier has put together two great seasons in a row in Buffalo, all without the benefit of a top-20 player in the front seven and with a revolving door of players at the second outside cornerback spot.

Aided by a souring offense, the Bills didn’t have to be quite as good as they were in 2019 to win, falling from fourth in yards per play allowed to 17th. But they might have had better outcomes if they weren’t tied for second during the regular season in dropped interceptions (12). They could be in a prime position to feast in the AFC East over the next couple of years, with recent draft picks Tua Tagovailoa, Zach Wilson and Mac Jones all likely starting soon for the division's other teams.

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