Akiem Hicks continues to show why he’s ‘freak of nature’ in Bears’ defense
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Adam L. Jahns’ “Inside the Huddle” column runs in game-day editions of the Chicago Sun-Times.
On third-and-9 in the third quarter against the Cardinals in Week 3, Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio fielded a foursome upfront that was likely fearsome for offenses.
It wasn’t just who was in the trenches; it was where Fangio aligned them, too.
Leonard Floyd handled the left edge, and Khalil Mack was inside and attacked the gap between the right guard and right tackle. Eddie Goldman played next to Mack, and Akiem Hicks rushed off the right edge against Cardinals offensive tackle D.J. Humphries.
It was a different attack for the Bears’ front, but it was one that forced an early and errant throw from quarterback Sam Bradford, who was intercepted by safety Eddie Jackson.
‘‘It just gives us some front variety,’’ Fangio said. ‘‘[It] changes it up for a tackle, too. He’s no longer blocking an athletic, 260- or 250-pound guy. He’s got to go against a big guy who’s got some power. Just a changeup.’’
It’s more like a high-and-inside fastball: It sends a message. It starts with Fangio’s use of Hicks, the Bears’ aforementioned ‘‘big guy.’’
Few, if any, teams have a player as massive and imposing as Hicks, who possesses the talent to come off the edge and be effective.
The Bears list Hicks at 6-5 and 332 pounds, but his teammates think he’s a larger load to handle than that.
‘‘I look at myself as big,’’ Goldman said. ‘‘I’m, like, 320 [pounds]. But this guy is 360, 350, with 13 percent body fat. He’s a freak of nature. And then to see him move, it’s even more incredible.’’
The Bears used the same front in their blowout of the Buccaneers in Week 4. Hicks also played over the center in that victory. He is a giant-sized chess piece for Fangio, one who deserves special mention, regardless of Mack’s exceptional start. Hicks helps Mack as much as Mack helps Hicks.
‘‘I would say [Hicks is] the heart of the defensive line,’’ Goldman said. ‘‘In the flow of the game, things get methodical, and he always reminds the team — but especially the [defensive] line — to pick it up and keep it going.’’
That’s the difference between Mack and Hicks: Mack might have been the elite pass rusher the Bears were missing, but Hicks became the sometimes-brash leader the defense needed last season.
‘‘Oh, man, [Hicks’ attitude] lifts us up,’’ rookie defensive lineman Bilal Nichols said. ‘‘He comes in every day ready to work, and he’s bubbly, happy. He’s just one of those people you just want to be around. He passes that energy around the D-line room. On days where it might seem like we’re flat, he gets us going. Having a guy like that around is tremendous.’’
In other words, the Bears and Hicks are fortunate he wasn’t suspended after his ejection for making contact with an official late in the first half against the Bucs. The Bears need his energy coming off their bye week and playing on the road against the Dolphins.
‘‘We’ve been very successful, and in times like that you can get a little lax,’’ Hicks said.
Of course, he can help with that. Hicks isn’t only the biggest Bear, he’s also one of the loudest.
‘‘Destroy,’’ Hicks said when asked about his mindset for the Dolphins. ‘‘Destroy everything.’’
For Fangio, the Bears’ path toward destruction might mean using Hicks off the edge on third downs against Dolphins left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who just was cleared from the concussion protocol.
“Those are things that we just like to change up every once in a while,’’ defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. ‘‘Those tackles are seeing some guys between 250 and 270 pounds every day, and now you put a 320-pound guy [on them]. They’re not used to setting on that from a wide-nine [alignment].’’
After four games, the Bears resemble the talented and dominant 49ers defenses Fangio was in charge of from 2011 to 2014. The Bears rank second in yards allowed per game (294.5), points allowed per game (16.3), sacks (18) and takeaways (11).
Hicks has become the Bears’ version of Justin Smith, who was a first-team All-Pro twice under Fangio with the 49ers. The Bears’ scheme now includes playing him off the edge occasionally.
‘‘When [Fangio] came here, there was a lot of tape of Justin Smith playing out there,’’ Rodgers said. ‘‘We kind of saw some of things that he did and how it can be incorporated into our personnel. So we put [Hicks] out there in one-in-one situations to see what he can do.’’
It’s another matchup the Bears think Hicks will win. His teammates see that.
‘‘You want to be able to go in there and kick some butt and be the same dominant defense that we’ve been for the last four weeks,’’ Hicks said.
Where they stand
With the Bears facing Dowell Loggains, their former offensive coordinator who is in the same position with the Dolphins, it’s important to know where they stand on what quarterback Mitch Trubisky gained in his 12 starts under him as a rookie last season.
‘‘You guys have heard me say this before — and this isn’t a cop-out: Last year is last year,’’ said quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone, the lone holdover from former coach John Fox’s offensive staff. ‘‘To me, he’s four games into coach [Matt] Nagy’s regime and system. We’re going to judge him each week, each play, [on] how we ask him to execute that play.’’
That’s not to say Trubisky’s experience under Loggains wasn’t worthwhile. It was, Ragone said. It started with playing in ‘‘hostile environments’’ and going through game weeks as the starter.
“He held his own, for the most part, as a rookie quarterback,’’ Ragone said. ‘‘And he put us in some positions at least to have a chance to win games, if not win them.”
But Fox wanted Loggains to run an offense that was as basic as can be for Trubisky. Nagy’s system is from a different planet.
‘‘Forget the ‘What did we run and how did we run it?’ ’’ Ragone said. ‘‘He’s into something new this year.’’
In other words, Trubisky might be at 16 career starts, but only four truly matter to the Bears.
‘‘I get that’s the number that has been thrown out,’’ Ragone said. ‘‘But for me, it’s four games into a regime that hopefully he can grow in and does good things in.’’
White can block
Receiver Kevin White has yet to be targeted this season, but it might be time to reward him for doing the dirty work. His play as a blocker has won over his coaches and his teammates.
‘‘Blocking, it’s all effort, and it’s a mentality,’’ receivers coach Mike Furrey said. ‘‘That’s why it’s good to see him do that. It’s good for our guys to know that ball can go anywhere, and [he’ll] continue to just keep playing and playing and playing.’’
That applies to receivers on screens and backs on their cuts.
‘‘[To] have that unselfish attitude, that’s pretty neat to see,’’ Furrey said. ‘‘It’s something we’ll continue to build on.’’
Q: What does the point [differential] say about [the Bears]? — @Dan_Uriostegul
A: If you listen to Fox Sports Radio’s Colin Cowherd, it means plenty. Cowherd’s recent rant about the value of point differential when it comes to considering good teams was shared often by Bears fans on Twitter because their favorite team was praised for being among the NFL’s best. The Bears’ plus-46 trails only the Rams (plus-70) and Ravens (plus-55). They’re tied with the high-scoring Chiefs, too. To me, it’s partly deceiving. It’s essentially because of their 48-10 blowout of the Buccaneers. That said, I do think it will continue. The Bears are allowing only 16.3 points per game, and quarterback Mitch Trubisky only will get better with time.
Q: Would you take the over or under on 20 [percent] blitzing from the defense? — @hodus
A: This might surprise you, but the Bears barely blitz. Sure, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will send inside linebackers and defensive backs, but it’s typically only four combined rushers. The difficulty for offenses comes with figuring out who is coming. Led by outside linebacker Khalil Mack and defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, the Bears’ 18 sacks rank second in the NFL to the Steelers, who have played one more game. It’s an impressive number, considering the Bears have one of the lowest blitz rates in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
Q: Is [Leonard] Floyd going to get his first sack this week? — @PrestonRobbins
A: While it’s not a positive that Floyd still is searching for his first sack after four games, it’s wrong to think he has played poorly.
‘‘We have loved the way he has played against the run,’’ outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley said.
Fangio also continues to use him in coverage. But Floyd’s No. 1 responsibility is to get the passer. Ten of his teammates have factored in sacks this season. Floyd has been close, but close isn’t good enough. He has been impaired by a broken right hand, but it’s no longer a major issue.