Makeup of a Defensive Coordinator

By Stephen Juza

March 3rd, 2023

Every year, defenses struggle to keep up with the offensive explosions throughout the league. Scoring peaked in 2020 at 24.8 points per game. In fact, the ten highest scoring seasons since 1970 have occurred in the last twelve seasons. Each year, defensive coordinators are tasked with finding new ways to slow down the increasingly pass-happy offenses.

Our earlier article examined the background of the league’s offensive coordinators where almost two thirds of the tacticians in charge of the offense come from a quarterback coach background. Today, we examine the position coaching background of the 2022 defensive coordinators.

The Coaches:

As with offensive coordinators, not every team has someone designated as the coordinator, and sometimes the head coach is in control of play calling. Two teams, the Saints and the Buccaneers, have split the role in two, one for passing and one for running.

Unlike offense, there is the potential for more granularity in position coaches on the defensive side. Some teams have separate coaches for inside and outside linebackers, defensive tackles and defensive ends, etc. For this article, I’ve grouped the coaches into defensive line, linebackers, and secondary coaches.

Career Experience:

Across the league, defensive coordinators in 2022 were more likely to come from farther away on the line of scrimmage. Seventeen of the thirty four coaches had experience coaching defensive backs, seventeen coached linebackers, and five had experience with defensive lines. Since coaches have opportunities to coach multiple positions during their career, these numbers don’t line up perfectly, as five coaches had experience crossing multiple position groups.

Defensive coordinators spent about eight seasons in their career as a position coach prior to their current coordinator position. This is almost double the experience with offensive coordinators (~4.75 seasons of experience). Several offensive coordinators came in with zero NFL position coaching experience, a fact not shared by the defensive staff.

What stands out to me is how little there is a relationship between experience and results on the defensive end. Unlike the offensive side of the ball, where more experience generally led to higher scoring offenses, defenses led by coordinators with more experience had worse performing units.

The top ten most-experienced coordinators (ten or more seasons as a position coach) led units that averaged just over 23 points per game. Looking at the other end of the experience spectrum, the nine least-experienced coaches (two through four seasons of experience) led units averaging 21 points per game. Additionally, it’s not simply because the coaches with the most potential move up to coordinators quickly - both groups have spent similar time in coordinator roles as well.

Positional Coaching Experience:

Not only is the number of years of experience not related to team performance, there is little difference between what level of defense they were coaching. Former linebackers coaches led defenses that gave up an average of 21.5 points per game, best of the three position groups. Former secondary coaches gave up the most points per game at 22.1 - a difference of only 3%.

No matter how you slice it, no amount of experience trends toward better performing defenses.

Key Takeaways: My theory on why we see such a lack of a difference compared to offensive coordinators is due to the unique ways that defenses can help cover their own shortcomings. An excellent pass rush can make a secondary seem better because opposing quarterbacks have less time to throw. Lockdown cornerbacks can give their defensive line more time to get to the quarterback.

The same is not inherently true on offense. An excellent quarterback can cover up deficiencies across the unit, but the same is not necessarily true for other units. Look no further than prime Randy Moss for the best example of this.

His two seasons in Oakland in the middle of prime, were season lows for his career up to that point (excluding 2004 where he only played 13 games). Despite his talent, in 2006 the Raiders had the third worst passing offense in the league. After being traded to New England, he immediately broke the individual season receiving touchdown record as the Patriots set all sorts of team offense records.

Defensive coordinators are tasked with slowing down the increasingly potent offenses around the league. When teams look to hire one, betting on experience to elevate the defensive unit may not be the way to go.

Signup to our newsletter by emailing

Follow us on Twitter: