Chiefs' offense 'ready to take off,' but is the defense grounded?

After he missed most of last season with a back injury, Dee Ford's return should provide a boost to a Chiefs pass rush that finished 24th in sacks last season. Jay Biggerstaff/USA TODAY Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Recently, defensive lineman Chris Jones talked enthusiastically about what the Kansas City Chiefs would accomplish with the ball this season.

"We're going to light it up, baby," Jones said. "We're going to light it up on offense. We've got Sammy Watkins. We've got Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, We've got a monster [Kareem Hunt] in the backfield. We're ready to take off, man. ... It's going to be something serious."

Jones may prove to be right. The Chiefs have a strong group of offensive skill players to surround their new starting quarterback, Patrick Mahomes.

The trouble is that Jones plays on the other side of the ball, where his expectations weren't quite as high.

"Coach [Andy] Reid and [general manager] Brett Veach, we've got winners in this organization right here," Jones said about the defense. "Everybody is eager to win. They're going to make the necessary steps, put the pieces together. We're going to trust and believe in one another that they're making the right decisions. What we can do is give it our all every day, win the day. That's what we're focused on -- winning the day, bettering each other around us."

The Chiefs' 2017 season could have been better than 10-6 and a wild-card-round playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans. They advanced that far because of their offense, which was fifth in yards and sixth in scoring.

The defense ruined what could have been a very good thing. The Chiefs were 28th in total defense, and on their biggest stage, they allowed three long touchdown drives during the final two quarters against the Titans and saw an 18-point halftime lead to slip away.

Among the regulars gone from that defense are cornerback Marcus Peters, who was traded to the Los Angeles Rams, and linebacker Derrick Johnson, who was released. Peters was arguably the Chiefs' best defensive player, while Johnson was a longtime presence in the middle of their defense.

Meanwhile, Watkins, a wide receiver, was Kansas City's biggest splurge in free agency -- an odd place for the Chiefs to spend given their defensive situation.

They didn't ignore the defense, though. They traded for cornerback Kendall Fuller, their major acquisition in the deal that sent quarterback Alex Smith to Washington. They signed another corner, David Amerson, and a linebacker, Anthony Hitchens.

The Chiefs then drafted defensive players with their top five picks, and they're counting on second-round linebacker Breeland Speaks to provide immediate help. In all, they should have at least seven new players in their defensive rotation on Sept. 9, when the season begins against the Chargers in Los Angeles.

"We've got a lot of new dudes ... and they're all different," defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said. "They're young rookies, guys that came here as free agents. It's a really good group of guys. It's early in the process, of course, but they seem to have meshed really [well]."

Still, at this early point, the Chiefs' efforts to fix their defense don't seem like enough. In a perfect world, they would have preferred to do more. But they weren't thrilled with this year's defensive group of unrestricted free agents. They also didn't have a first-round draft pick, depriving them of a good opportunity to acquire another defensive player with the potential to have an immediate impact. They sent their first-round pick to the Buffalo Bills in last year's trade that allowed them to move up to draft Mahomes.

"I can't sit here and say that I went into the draft and just wanted to draft defense, defense, defense," Veach said. "I knew we had to get better on defense and I knew that we had to get tougher. ...

"I knew one thing that I really wanted to make sure I left the draft with is someone who could affect the passer, and that is where Breeland came into play. Not a lot of opportunities to get [pass-rushers] in the NFL draft, and that is why these guys go high in the first round."

The Chiefs are looking to improve in many areas. One is the rush defense, which finished 25th last season and allowed almost 150 yards to Tennessee in the second half of the playoff game.

Another is the pass rush, which tied for 24th in sacks last season with 31. One of their top pass-rushers, Dee Ford, returns after missing most of last season with a back injury.

Outside linebackers coach Mike Smith said the Chiefs would be looking more for matchups this year when deciding how to best utilize Ford and their other top edge rusher, linebacker Justin Houston. They have mostly played one side or the other, allowing opponents to an extent to dictate their assignments.

"If there's a tackle that's big and a little bit slower, Dee's got one of the best get-offs in the league," Smith said. "He'll line up on him. If the tackle is a little bit smaller, Justin will go tear him up a little bit. That's kind of what we'll do."

As for Houston, who led the NFL with 22 sacks as recently as 2014, Smith said, "We've got to get our best player on their worst offensive lineman, wherever that might be."

The Chiefs are eager to have both Houston and safety Eric Berry for a full season. Berry is back after missing all but the season opener after tearing an Achilles tendon. They have been two of Kansas City's best defensive players since they joined the Chiefs, Berry in 2010 and Houston the next season.

But they've made it through a season without either missing a significant portion because of injury only once. That was in 2012.

If Houston and Berry stay healthy, Fuller proves he can be a No. 1 cornerback, Ford and Speaks boost the pass rush, Jones continues his improvement and becomes a top lineman and one or more of their young cornerbacks contribute in a meaningful way, the Chiefs would improve quickly on defense.

While none of those things are unreasonable, it's wishful thinking that it's all going to occur. A better prospect is that the Chiefs will again have to outscore opponents in 2018.

"I think we can be one of, if not the best, offense in the NFL," Mahomes said. "We have a ton of talent everywhere and we're deep at every position. I think with the offensive line all coming back pretty much and then having a good stable of running backs, having receivers and tight ends that can make plays, for me it's all about just getting them the ball and letting them make the plays."