The biggest reason the Bears think they’ll be able to slow the Packers’ offense this time around stands 6-4 and weighs 347 pounds.
Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, the heart of the defense and the Bears’ very identity, wasn’t on the field when they gave up a season-high 41 points to the Packers and star quarterback Aaron Rodgers on Nov. 29. He stood on the Lambeau Field sideline with a hamstring injury while the Packers ran for 181 yards, the most the Bears had allowed since Christmas Eve, 2016.
With a playoff berth on the line Sunday, Hicks will face the Packers hampered only by the remnants of a cold he said coincided with the first snowfall of the season.
“He’s been a part of this defense for years,” coach Matt Nagy said Friday. “And he’s a big-time leader. So when you have all those elements, he’s gonna obviously help us out big-time. With his energy, his veteran leadership, his knowledge — he understands what this game is all about. And he’s also one of those guys, as you all know, he brings the juice, too. He’s gonna let people know how he feels, and our guys feed off of that.
“So as much of a presence as he is physically, he’s emotionally just as big.”
Hicks is one of the Bears’ leaders — along with Khalil Mack, Allen Robinson, Eddie Jackson, Mitch Trubisky and others — credited with holding the team together during a six-game skid that turned into a three-game winning streak.
“You see guys like Eddie, you see guys like Khalil, like Akiem, like [linebackers] Roquan [Smith] and Danny [Trevathan], there’s a bunch of those guys that, they have pride,” Nagy said. “And they care about how they play this game, not only for themselves but for their team and for their city.
“They know that they’re a good defense. And that game, that day, we just didn’t play very well — and Green Bay played really well.”
Packers coach Matt LaFleur knows the impact Hicks could have. Last year, Hicks returned from a dislocated elbow to play in the Bears’ last-gasp game at Lambeau Field.
“You just can’t replicate what he’s able to do out there on the field,” LaFleur said.
In the four games since the loss to the Packers, Hicks has five quarterback hits. The Bears’ defense hasn’t felt particularly dangerous during that span, particularly against teams, like the Packers, that know them best. The Lions scored 30 and the Vikings 27.
Rodgers can top that. The Bears need their pass rush to get home against the favorite for NFL MVP, particularly with Packers star left tackle David Bakhtiari out for the season after hurting his knee in practice Thursday.
Hicks has two sacks in his last four games against the Packers. He’ll be just as valuable against the run. The Packers’ A.J. Dillon ran 21 times for 124 yards Sunday night against the Titans, and Aaron Jones, the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher, had 10 carries for 94. The Packers ran 37 times for 234 yards, an average of 6.3 yards per carry.
“I feel like playing the run game is one of my strengths, so I definitely feel like I’ll help out in that regard,” Hicks said. “I would say this is an exciting matchup, right? Our first bulletin-board point, no matter who we’re playing, is to stop the run. The only way to rush the passer is if you stop the run, so that’s always a goal of ours.”
Hicks smiled when asked if defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano was correct in saying his players had a different look in their eyes heading into the win-and-they’re-in game against the rival Packers.
“Lights switch on, you know,” Hicks said. “We’re all the way up. Brightness in the room — no dimmer.”