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Akiem Hicks, Khalil Mack lead defensive turnaround

Maybe it was a coincidence that once Nick Foles entered, the Bears’ defense turned from a culpable disappointment into an intimidating force that gave Foles the wand to work his magic. 

Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks (96) and Khalil Mack (52) combine to sack Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in the Bears’ 30-26 victory Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks (96) and Khalil Mack (52) combine to sack Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan in the Bears’ 30-26 victory Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP Photos

The Bears’ defense started with a dreadful blunder and ended with an exhilarating interception Sunday against the Falcons. And in between, Nick Foles happened.

“When we looked up and saw 9 [Foles] in,” safety Tashaun Gipson said, “obviously coach Nagy made that decision for what’s best for the team. And it proved to be the right decision.”

Maybe it was a coincidence that once Foles stepped onto the field, the Bears’ defense suddenly turned from a culpable disappointment in need of some soul-searching into an intimidating force that gave Foles the wand to work his magic. But maybe not.

“We just played hard, man,” said defensive end Akiem Hicks, who was dominant with 1½ sacks and five quarterback pressures. “Just played hard.”

Anyone who watched the Bears’ 30-26 come-from-behind victory against the Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium knows it was a far greater force that reversed the fortunes of the defense. It takes more than hard work to turn things around like the Bears’ defense did Sunday.

“We were just excited to get the ball rolling, get some points on the board,” said Gipson, whose interception of Matt Ryan at the Bears’ 24-yard line with 1:06 to play clinched the victory. “We knew once they started putting up points, the defense had them where they wanted them. Because this defense is dangerous.”

It wasn’t at first. After Matt Ryan burned safety Eddie Jackson for a 63-yard completion to Calvin Ridley on the first play from scrimmage, the Bears’ vaunted defense was struggling to get its footing. When Khalil Mack stripped Ryan and Hicks recovered, the play was nullified by a roughing-the-passer penalty on Mario Edwards.

On the opening drive of the second half, the Bears looked like they had stopped the Falcons on third-and-two, but Hicks was called for roughing the passer on a seemingly innocuous quarterback pressure. The Falcons continued a seven-play 75-yard touchdown drive, with Todd Gurley scoring way too easily on a 10-yard run to give the Falcons a 23-10 lead.

At that point, the Bears’ defense had allowed 286 yards on 38 plays (7.5 yards per play).

But in the final 26 minutes, as the momentum swung the Bears’ way, the defense held the Falcons to 95 yards on 27 plays (3.5 yards per play).

Truth be told, desperation initiated the defensive resurgence. After Falcons cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson intercepted Mitch Trubisky and returned it 23 yards to the Bears’ 19 early in the third quarter, the Bears forced the Falcons to settle for Younghoe Koo’s 36-yard field goal with 9:58 to go.

Then Foles stepped in and ignited the offense, which sparked the defense.

“That most definitely plays a role — having your offense push the ball down the field,” Hicks said. “Maybe give us a chance to catch our wind. All those things play a role when it comes to momentum, making sure that you have proper energy, start pushing things in your direction. It all benefits us.”

The Bears kept increasing the pressure on Ryan, their luck changed and the short-handed Falcons started imploding. Running back Brian Hill dropped a third-down pass. Bears defensive tackle Brent Urban batted a pass at the line. Hicks sacked Ryan. Bilal Nichols and Mack stopped Hill for a one-yard gain.

With the pressure on, Ryan and the Falcons wilted.

“Defensively, you always want to intimidate and impose your will upon your opponent,” Hicks said. “You want them to see you as this dominating figure they have to overcome. It definitely plays a role in making sure you’re imposing your will through the game. That’s how you’ve got to finish it, man. You’ve got to finish it.”