Football is one of the most complex sports in the world because of its reliance on specialization. There are three different units, and there isn’t a clear connection between their playing styles, particularly on offense and defense. Therefore, complementary football isn’t exactly a clear concept. However, the most logical way to understand such a popularized term is when all areas of a team act together to maximize their chances of winning. And that’s something the Green Bay Packers must upgrade over the next few seasons. In terms of styles, Matt LaFleur’s offense and Joe Barry’s defense are systems that don’t seem to emphasize what the other has to offer.
The Kansas City Chiefs are an excellent example of how to play complementary football. With an explosive offense led by two-time MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the team scores fast and frequently when needed. However, the running game isn’t strong, and Kansas City rarely can sustain long drives. On the other hand, the defense is not exactly a top unit. They only ranked 17th in defensive DVOA last year. However, the aggressiveness of Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme is perfect to force negative plays for the offense. The defense can generate sacks, turnovers, and red-zone efficiency. Even if they give up yards and field position, those negative plays are just what the offense needs to win games.
In a different way, the San Francisco 49ers also play efficient complementary football. With a stout front seven, the defense is San Francisco’s strength. They pressure the opposing quarterback, stop the run, and protect a questionable secondary. It’s not a unit based on turnovers and red-zone stops. They’re a classic “bend, don’t break” defense. Kyle Shanahan and Co. emphasize down-by-down dominance.
It’s hard to score much against them because they’re so talented and because of their playing style. Shanahan also ensures that the offense dovetails with the defense’s strengths. It’s a run-centric system and a passing offense that originates from those runs. The offense doesn’t need to score 30 points a game for the team to be successful. They can control the clock and the pace of the game. The defense can rest on the sidelines, getting ready to dominate again when they return to the field.
You have probably already understood that the Packers live in the middle ground between Kansas City and San Francisco’s styles. But that’s not exactly a great thing. In terms of offense, Green Bay has a similar system to what Shanahan runs. Matt LaFleur worked under Shanahan with the Houston Texans, the Washington Commanders, and the Atlanta Falcons. However, the defense is not a dominant unit designed to overpower the opposition. Even though it’s an entirely different defensive scheme, it’s similar to KC’s because of the “bend, don’t break” mentality.
The result of that combination is a team in which offense and defense are working against each other. While the offense is built to be on the field for seven or eight minutes in one drive, the defense can’t get off the field, either. Therefore, if the offense gets one drive without scoring, they might not have another opportunity in almost one entire quarter of football. It’s a lot of pressure on a unit that is not designed to explode and cross the field with big dropback passing plays.
The defense must get better in general, but not just better trying to do the same things they were doing last year. The Packers must focus on getting the ball back early in drives so the offense has a decent opportunity to establish their running-centric style.
“Our defense was getting better. It was progressing,” LaFleur said, justifying his decision to keep Joe Barry. “I thought Joe was doing a good job of communicating with our players. I thought our staff was doing a great job together, putting our guys in a better situation, having just more clarity on what it is we wanted to be and our play style.”
For that to happen, the running defense is still a major concern. Last season, the team was 31st in defensive rushing EPA, only ahead of the Cleveland Browns. So even being decent against the pass (they were a top-10 unit in defensive passing DVOA), it was impossible to control the clock facing so many long drives by opposing offenses.
The Packers lost Jarran Reed and Dean Lowry this year and only added rookies to the defensive line mix. The expectations are high for first-round pick Lukas Van Ness, but older players like Devonte Wyatt and T.J. Slaton must take a step forward. Joe Barry also has to adapt, prioritizing a defensive style that fits what the offense is trying to accomplish.
Those are not easy things to execute without significant staff and/or personnel changes. But it’s hard to imagine a successful season without an adaptation where both sides of the ball can row the boat in the same direction.