Akiem Hicks’ absence looming larger for Bears

Roy Robertson-Harris and Nick Williams are among the capable replacements on the defensive line — but there’s only one Hicks. “He brings a lot of things to the table that a lot of guys can’t bring.”

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Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks celebrates a defensive top against the Packers in the season opener on Sept. 5 at Soldier Field.

Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks celebrates a defensive top against the Packers in the season opener on Sept. 5 at Soldier Field.

David Banks/AP

The first time the Bears played without Akiem Hicks, his absence was hardly noticed.

In Week 4 against the Vikings at Soldier Field, the Bears played not only without Hicks — their Pro Bowl defensive end — but inside linebacker Roquan Smith, who missed that game for personal reasons. The Bears responded with a dominant performance.

They held running back Dalvin Cook, who came in averaging an NFL-best 125 yards a game, to 34 yards on 15 carries. They held the Vikings to 222 total yards, 3.8 per play. They sacked Kirk Cousins six times. The Vikings didn’t score until Cook’s consolation touchdown with 2:58 left in a 16-0 game. At that point, the Bears’ vaunted defense looked bulletproof.

But it has been a different story since Hicks dislocated his left elbow eight plays into the Bears’ game against the Raiders in London on Oct. 6. The Raiders, who had five carries for 13 yards with Hicks on the field, rushed for 156 yards and three touchdowns on 34 carries after Hicks left. They finished with 398 total yards in a 24-21 victory.

Hicks was put on injured reserve after that game and could return in Week 15 against the Packers. The Bears’ defense is still pretty good without him. But the difference is noticeable.

Since that standout performance against the Vikings, the Bears have allowed 356.5 yards per game (up from 290.8 through four games) and 125.5 rushing yards per game (up from 61.5). They have three takeaways (down from eight). They’ve dropped from fifth to ninth in the NFL in total yards, from third to eighth in rushing, from fourth to 15th in sacks per pass play and from third to ninth in third-down percentage.

The Bears have depth on their defense. But they don’t have another Hicks.

“Oh, yeah,” outside linebacker Aaron Lynch said. “He’s a dominant person, so when he’s not on the field, you can tell. There’s not a huge difference, but you miss Akiem Hicks. He brings a lot of things to the table that a lot of guys can’t bring.”

The Bears have capable replacements. Bilal Nichols returned against the Saints after missing three games with a broken hand. Roy Robertson-Harris and Nick Williams have been productive playing more snaps since Hicks was injured.

But with nose tackle Eddie Goldman playing only 10 snaps against the Eagles because of a thigh injury, the defensive line was pushed to the limit. Newcomer Brent Urban, who was signed Oct. 21 after being cut by the Titans, played 36 snaps.

The longer this goes on, the more the Bears seem to miss Hicks.

“It’s a big difference,” safety Eddie Jackson said. “It’s hard to replace Akiem. We have good guys in this locker room. They can do a lot of things. But his stats speak for themselves. The things he’s able to do. He’s the X-factor guy. He’s huge. You see Akiem on film throwing two guys — he’s not moving, period. Just that mentality he has in how he approaches and plays the game . . . it’s hard to replace.”

There’s more than enough spark in the Bears’ defense to be a difference-making unit without Hicks. But there’s no doubt the Bears lose a bit of their bite without him — on the field and off.

“He has a presence,” Lynch said. “There are guys backing up who can play the game, too, when it comes to actual football. But his presence — he’s definitely missed. We want Akiem Hicks back. It’s unfortunate what happened, but he’ll be back soon.”

That hasn’t been determined yet. But Lynch is confident Hicks will be back.

“I had the same injury [in 2018]; I think he can come back from it,” Lynch said. “It was difficult, definitely something you take day by day. [But] it’s Akiem Hicks. He’s a beast. I’m not worried about it.”

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