The Bears’ defense got its ‘‘monster’’ back.
Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks returned to practice Thursday, exactly two weeks after hurting his quadriceps. While coach Matt Nagy was careful to point out it was a short, light practice — Hicks undoubtedly wasn’t asked to do a tremendous amount of work — it was a good sign as the Bears hurtle toward the season opener Sept. 13 against the Lions.
‘‘Just preparing for football, man,’’ Hicks said. ‘‘You know, this time of year and this situation that we’ve been in have been taxing on everyone.
‘‘The biggest battle is making sure that you remember what you’re focused on or what you’re pushing toward, and that’s coming out Week 1 and playing good football.’’
The Bears play better football with Hicks than without him. Outside linebacker Khalil Mack and the team’s pass coverage suffered when Hicks sat out 11 games last season, 10 with a grisly dislocated elbow and one with a knee injury.
Nagy had been vague about Hicks’ quad injury, other than to say it wasn’t the result of a fun end-of-practice drill two weeks ago in which Hicks caught a punt and celebrated by kicking the ball. Hicks reiterated he didn’t hurt himself that way.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of a healthy Hicks against the Lions. His return is one of the major arguments for the Bears’ defense resembling their 2018 incarnation more than their 2019 version.
‘‘Anytime you see [No.] 96 out there, that’s a good thing,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘We like that; we know opposing offenses don’t. We want to make sure we have him out there, so it was good.’’
The Bears have a different edge when Hicks is on the field. Earlier this summer, defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano referred to the old E.F. Hutton commercial — when he talks, people listen — when trying to describe precisely what Hicks provides. He’s wise, Pagano said then, and is willing to share with his teammates.
‘‘You can’t replace him,’’ Pagano said.
Mack long ago bestowed upon Hicks the nickname ‘‘Mufasa,’’ Simba’s powerful, wise father from ‘‘The Lion King.’’
Nose tackle John Jenkins argues Hicks is like ‘‘Sully,’’ the fuzzy blue giant from the ‘‘Monsters, Inc.’’ franchise. And he should know. Hicks and Jenkins played together in 2013-15 with the Saints, in 2017 with the Bears and again this season.
‘‘Akiem is the same Akiem I’ve known since New Orleans,’’ Jenkins said. ‘‘This is my guy. He’s been the same: full of energy, a powerful guy, a force to be reckoned with on the field.
‘‘And I look at him as that blue [monster] from Monsters, Inc, you know? . . . [He] was the scariest monster, but when he got around the little girl, he was a sweetheart.
‘‘That’s how he is off the field. But when he’s on the field, he’s a monster.’’
Despite the quad injury, Hicks might feel more at ease in the first game of 2020 than he did in the opener of 2019, when the Bears’ defense still was learning Pagano’s defense.
‘‘I would say this: Everybody’s a little bit more comfortable,’’ Hicks said. ‘‘We have some things that we’ve been familiar with over the past year, so anytime that you get that continuity from your [coordinator], guys just feel more comfortable.
‘‘So I think that going into this season, we’re going to be just a little bit more sharp on some of the things that we’ve tried to install and do over here for the past couple of years.’’
With no preseason games this year, the Bears have been able to test themselves only with physical practice drills. Hicks insisted he’s ready for game action.
‘‘When we get to the regular season and you get to unload on somebody that you don’t have to see in the locker room, that’s when the real pleasure comes,’’ he said.