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What Having Akiem Hicks Back Means for the Bears

The Bears benefit greatly at stopping the run, and Hicks also provides another sack threat right in the faces of opposing quarterbacks

During the offseason, Next Gen stats detailed how the absence of Akiem Hicks in the lineup last year affected the pass rush of Khalil Mack.

It was obvious, but the numbers said Mack had pressures on only 8.7% of rushes without Hicks on the field and 16.4% with him.

When Hicks wasn't on the field, Bears linebackers had to take on more blockers. When he was absent his leadership was obviously missed but difficult to measure. He was among the team leaders this offseason when the Bears were discussing the death of George Floyd and Colin Kaepernick's kneeling in June.

How Hicks indirectly affects others in different ways is well and good, but there is one thing Akiem Hicks does which trumps all else and it's simply being a dominant force at defensive end. This is the direct effect they will feel when he returns to the practice field Tuesday at the outset of training camp.

Hicks was a Pro Bowl player in 2018, an honor long overdue, and it would take a reversal of fortunes for him not to earn consideration again.

"Certainly we're different when he's out there playing at a high level than when he's not," defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said.

Hicks makes running the ball against the Bears a futile act. His impact against the run is much like nose tackle Eddie Goldman's. There just is no place to go for offenses when a quick, 352-pound end is pushing everything back. The cutback lanes vanish.

The Bears led the NFL in rushing defense in 2018 at 80 yards per game. They lost Hicks to a dislocated elbow on the first series against the Raiders, and he returned for the Packer game late last year but only really played in four games. The Bears wound up ninth in rushing at 102 yards a game and sixth in yards allowed per carry.

When Hicks left, the Bears gave up 169 yards rushing to the Raiders, 151 to the Saints, 146 to the Eagles and went on to allow 110.5 yards rushing a game when he was missing, just 76.7 yards rushing when he played.

"I played four games, I miss football," Hicks said. "So I'm ready. My body is doing as good as it can. But man being back on that field will probably make it feel a whole lot better."

Hicks' ability to get into the backfield even in what is a two-gap front when he is required to occupy blockers is what makes his run stuffing special. He had 38 tackles for loss from 2016-18.

"What I'd like from him is to get back to where he was," defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. "He missed a lot of games last year so all of his production that he had from previous seasons, those are the things we missed.

"We know he's a dominant player inside. He creates a lot of problems for a lot of people. He's a mismatch for a lot of guards and centers and sometimes tackles as well. And those are the things that elevate your front–guys like him who are able to just dominate at his spot."

Hicks' presence in the pass rush isn't merely to remove pressure from Mack. As Rodgers said, Hicks can be a pass pro nightmare, barreling straight in from the inside. Even last year when he played only four games he had nine pressures, five hits and a sack. From 2016-2018, Hicks had 53 quarterback hits and 23 sacks. His 16 hits, 7 1/2 sacks and 29 pressures in 2018 combined with Mack's dominance to make three-step drops about the only avenue open to opposing quarterbacks.

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It's uncommon to find interior NFL defensive linemen who can pile up sacks in the pass rush. Only five interior linemen had 7 1/2 sacks or more last year, led by Aaron Donald's 12 1/2.

The Bears tried to lean on Nick Williams for a while when Hicks left last year and he did an admirable job with six sacks but the constant pressure and ability to take away double teams from Mack were missing. The run-stuffing ability was at a much lower level.

There might be a question in some minds whether Hicks can reach the same level he was in 2018 since he's going to be 31 in November. It might mean a little more rest than in the past, considering he played 74% to 85% of defensive snaps the three years prior to 2019. 

Being 30 isn't the end of the line for a defensive lineman, especially if he's able to keep his legs and back healthy like Hicks has. Former Bears Jim Osborne and Steve McMichael played effectively in another era until their mid 30s. The only standout defensive lineman the Bears have had of Hicks' size was free agent acquisition Ted Washington and he was able to stay in the NFL until age 39.

"He's going to be ready to go," Rodgers said. "I mean, he has told that to me. He has told that to numerous people. He has a chip on his shoulder for the time that he missed last year. I trust that.

"We've been together, I think this is going on four or five years now, since 2016. And all the communication I've ever had from Akiem is I'm ready to play."

Those are sweet words to the Bears defense but not so much really for opposing offenses.

Akiem Hicks at a Glance

Regina DE

Height: 6-foot-4

Weight: 352

Key Numbers: The Bears had Hicks on the field for 18% of defensive snaps last year. The previous three years he played 74%, 85% and 87%.

2020 Projection: 51 tackles, six sacks, 14 QB hits.