Akiem Hicks returned to practice at Halas Hall on Sunday, putting the star defensive lineman on track to be activated off injured reserve for the Bears’ Week 15 trip to play the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
Getting Hicks back from the gruesome elbow injury he suffered Oct. 6 in London would undoubtedly be a massive boost to a team that’s missed his play and presence over the last eight weeks. While coach Matt Nagy was not ready to guarantee Hicks’ return on Dec. 15 in Green Bay, he said activating the 2018 Pro Bowler won’t hinge on the result of the 6-6 Bears’ Thursday night game against the Dallas Cowboys this week.
“If Akiem is ready to play and ready to go for the Green Bay Packers game, then regardless of anything we want him to be able to play,” Nagy said.
Hicks has only played in four games this year, with his elbow injury occurring early in the Bears’ Week 5 loss to the Oakland Raiders. He doesn’t seem like the kind of player who would take kindly to the suggestion he get shut down for the final games of a lost season, anyway — as Nagy said, if he’s healthy, he’ll play.
So now it’s on the Bears to make sure Hicks’ return could legitimately mean something for their 2019 season. Meaning: In their last expected game without Hicks this season, they need to beat the Dallas Cowboys.
A win over Dallas would improve the Bears’ record to 7-6, though the team would still face an uphill climb to playoff-race relevancy even with a win. They’d need to run the table against the Green Bay Packers, Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings — with games against the Packers and Vikings being on the road — while getting plenty of help around the league.
But it’d be a lot easier to buy the possibility of a miraculous playoff push with Hicks on the field. Consider what it could do for Khalil Mack:
Mack with Hicks in 2019 (3 games, not including Oakland): 3 sacks, 20 pressures
Mack without Hicks (9 games): 2.5 sacks, 37 pressures
Mack has been the focus of offensive gameplans ever since Hicks’ injury, with teams selling out to make sure Mack doesn’t wreck a game. That’s meant frequent double- and triple-teams, with tight ends, running backs, wide receivers, tackles and guards all contributing to keeping Mack away from opposing quarterbacks.
And it’s led to Mack not having the sort of impact he had when Hicks was on the field to absorb some scheming focus. The Bears’ other pass rushers — like Leonard Floyd — have not won one-on-one matchups, allowing teams to commit resources to blocking Mack with little downside.
That’ll change in the case of Hicks comeback, and it would affect the entire defense. A better pass rush does a better job scrambling the decision-making of opposing quarterbacks, leading to more opportunities for interceptions for the Bears’ secondary. More sacks and throwaways keep opposing offenses at or behind the chains, leading to difficult third downs. And Hicks’ impact on stopping the run is massive.
But Hicks’ impact extends beyond how he affects a given game with his play. Defensive lineman Eddie Goldman pointed to Hicks’ ability to make plays in critical moments, citing his forced fumble at the goal line against the Miami Dolphins in 2018 as an example.
“In situations like that, that’s where you see it the most,” Goldman said. “When you think you’re down and out, and it’s like he just makes a play. He gives you the energy to keep going when you think there’s no more, you know what I mean?”
And fellow defensive lineman Nick Williams said Hicks’ presence on the practice field can make a significant impact, too.
“He’s a Pro Bowl defensive lineman in this league,” Williams said. “So any time you get that guy back at a practice it just sparks and excitement amongst us and we want to go out here these next four games and give it our all.”
Barring something unexpected, it appears Hicks will return in 2019. It’ll certainly matter to him, and matter to his teammates.
But for it to matter in the NFC playoff race? The Bears have to beat Dallas first.