DL Hicks a cornerstone of Chicago Bears defense
Bears DL Akiem Hicks doesn’t get as many spectacular sacks as OLB Khalil Mack, and at 6-foot-5 and 332 pounds, he obviously doesn’t make as many plays on the ball as CB Kyle Fuller or S Eddie Jackson.
But Hicks has become a cornerstone of what is arguably the NFL’s best defense. Mack’s sacks, Fuller’s picks and Jackson’s knack for taking turnovers to the house wouldn’t be possible without the two-way play of the big man up front.
Not only does Hicks occupy a large area where running plays go to die, he puts more pressure on opposing quarterbacks than most players his size.
He had an almost-unheard-of five tackles for negative yardage against the Vikings in Week 11, and he leads all Bears defensive linemen by a wide margin with 39 tackles. In the previous two years, his 15.5 sacks are more than any other Bear, and he has four more this year, along with a team-best 11 QB hits.
But Hicks has yet to participate in his first Pro Bowl. Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, the architect and maestro of the group that ranks in the top five in a dozen major statistical categories, was asked if Hicks deserves to go this year.
“I believe so,” Fangio said. “He’s just doing everything a little bit better. He played very well the entire (Vikings) game from start to finish and had some dominating plays in there. I think he did a lot for himself to gather offseason honors.”
But, just like his teammates, Hicks had to strap it up again 85 hours after that Vikings game ended and line it up against the Lions in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day. Not an easy turnaround, especially considering that Hicks played 79 percent of the defensive snaps against the Vikings, his normal workload.
“In pregame warm-ups, I did a couple of get-offs and I felt my quads (were) a little fatigued already,” Hicks said. “I was saying to myself, ‘How is this possible? I just played three or four days ago.’ But it’s part of the game. Everybody gets a short week, we just got it shortened a little bit more, and we fought through it.”
And, as he always is, Hicks was there when the Bears needed him most against the Lions. They were clinging to a 16-13 lead in the fourth quarter, but the Lions were threatening to take the lead.
Detroit had a second-and-2 from the Bears’ three-yard line. With his heels on the goalline, Hicks stuffed 250-pound RB LeGarrette Blount after a one-yard gain, and the Lions settled for a game-tying field goal, which Jackson untied 99 seconds later with his pick-6.
“In the end, our guys made plays when they needed to,” coach Matt Nagy said. “(We) made some big stops. It was second-and-2 from the three, and we had a big stop there. Great play by Akiem Hicks there. (That) forced into a third-and-1, and then they had an incompletion. That was a big part of the game, in my opinion, to get that stop there and not allow them to score the touchdown.”
That’s the kind of plays Hicks has been making more and more frequently since he signed with the Bears as an unrestricted free agent before the 2016 season after three-and-a-half seasons with the Saints and a half-season with the Patriots.
“Akiem has come a long way,” Fangio said. “He was in New Orleans and didn’t have much success there at all and went to New England for half a season and did OK. I think a lot of people were surprised we signed him, but we saw something in him that we thought we could develop and get him to play well within our scheme. And he’s done that.”
Maybe this is the year Hicks gets the national recognition he’s earned.