The Kansas City Chiefs defense was widely overlooked during a Super Bowl-winning season, but the talented unit is seeking recognition headed into 2020.
"We expect to pick up where we left off last season, as one of the best defenses in the National Football League," said Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu, via ESPN's Adam Teicher. "It wasn't pretty, and I know we don't have this extra amount of first-round draft picks. We've just got a lot of guys that work hard and fit our scheme really well. A lot of those guys are coming back.
"The expectation is to be one of the best defenses in the National Football League and obviously to start the season faster and finish even stronger."
Mathieu proved to be a key free-agent addition in his first year in K.C., leading a defense that found a groove when it mattered most and helped mend a midseason injury to quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Over the final six regular-season games in 2019, the Chiefs allowed a league-leading 11.4 points per game on the way to six straight wins and an AFC West title. It was a contrasting number to the 24 PPG allowed over the first 10 games, which ranked 23rd in the NFL at the time.
There were a couple factors behind the Chiefs' midseason turnaround. Not only did Mathieu require some acclimation to his new team, but defensive end Frank Clark also needed time to adapt after being acquired in an offseason trade. The two also joined a Chiefs defense that was being re-imagined as a whole by new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
"At the beginning of the season we were trying to learn the defense," said free safety Juan Thornhill, who earned a starting role in his rookie year. "We were trying to figure out how to play together, trying to figure out what were guys' strengths and weaknesses. Midway through the season we started to click because guys started to know. I didn't know what [Mathieu] was good at and I didn't know what he was bad at. Once we started playing a few weeks together we started to get that feeling that 'OK, I know he's going to do this.' We started making more plays because we were confident in what our teammates could do."
Once finding cohesion, however, the defense fought through adversity in the playoffs after a season-ending knee injury to Thornhill in Week 17 and a lingering groin injury to Chris Jones that forced the Chiefs' main cog of the defensive line miss the Wild Card Round and be limited in the AFC Championship game. It resulted in two thrilling playoff shootouts ahead of their Super Bowl LIV matchup against the San Francisco 49ers, but it was the defense that came through late, allowing just seven fourth-quarter points in the three wins that resulted in the Chiefs hoisting the franchise's first Lombardi Trophy in 50 years.
With 10 starters returning on defense, the unit has a couple of distinct advantages amid an offseason with multiple COVID-19 restrictions and the lack of a preseason altogether.
"With the challenges of what we're going through right now, we're all really glad it's not the first year," Spagnuolo said. "It would be really hard. The guys that have been here and are in the same spots, that's been a tremendous advantage for us."
Another benefit will be preparing for the season against the Chiefs' dynamic offense, which earned the limelight during their exciting title run.
"They're going back and forth," said head coach Andy Reid. "I love the fact they're challenging each other, which does nothing but make you better."
Although there is really no telling what the result will be after an unprecedented offseason, the defending champs aren't resting on their laurels, and the vocal leader of the Chiefs defense sees his squad's improvement as a big motivator.
"We could've been so much better, especially the production at the ball. I think I dropped eight interceptions by myself," said Mathieu. "Just understanding that if you make certain plays, it would've completely changed how well we played. I thought we played well, but it could've been great. So I think that's the motivation this year, that we know we can really get better.
"We're not necessarily patting ourselves on the back because we won a championship."
The Chiefs' quest for a repeat will start on Thursday, Sept. 10, when they host the Houston Texans to officially kick off the 2020 NFL season.