Akiem Hicks still expecting big things from Bears’ defense in 2018

You won’t find a more proud guy in the Bears’ locker room than Akiem Hicks. But he knows he’s in the right place at the right time.

Coming off a second consecutive career year since turning down the Patriots to sign with the Bears in 2016, Hicks at 28 is looking to take another step toward the Pro Bowl. But his biggest asset likely is the return of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and 10 other starters from last year’s defense, which ranked 10th in yards, 11th in yards per play and ninth in points allowed.

He knows it’s not a coincidence that he has blossomed as a 3-4 defensive end in Fangio’s scheme. Hicks has 15½ sacks in two seasons with the Bears — 8½ last year and seven in 2016. He had 9½ in the previous three seasons with the Saints and Patriots.

“Just putting me in the right positions to be successful [is] what I’d attribute my play to over the past couple years,” Hicks said. “Vic has a great idea of what I’m good at [and] what I’m bad at. So he’s not going to put me out there to sit and go contain. Coming from a situation where I was being cast as a 4-3 defensive end, I think he just knows how to use me and my strengths better.”

Bears defensive end Akiem Hicks is the only Bears defensive player to start all 16 games in the past two seasons. He had 7.0 sacks in 2016 and 8.5 last season. (David Banks/AP)

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Hicks, the only Bears defensive player to start all 16 games the last two seasons, will benefit as much as anyone from Fangio’s return.

“I was juiced because with change, guys get lost in the shuffle,” said Hicks, who had 15 tackles for loss last season, tripling his 2016 production (five). “With change, you’re doing different things and maybe not playing to what has benefitted you in the past. So to have somebody come in that knows us and is willing to cast us in the right position, it’s super beneficial to us as a defense.”

Continuity, growth from within and the addition of rookie linebacker Roquan Smith — the eighth pick in the draft — are expected to help the defense become even more productive. But when asked what the defense needs to do to take that next step, Hicks pointed to the offense first.

“Having our offense be able to keep us off the field and keep us a little bit fresher is going to benefit us a lot,” Hicks said. “I think we played really well last year, and as long as we polish up our ends and make ourselves a little bit better — and then have the offense contribute [by] keeping us off the field and fresher — I think we’ll come out there with a good attitude and be able to kick some more butt.”