With linchpin DL Akiem Hicks to IR, Bears D faces real challenge to stay at elite level

With linchpin DL Akiem Hicks to IR, Bears D faces real challenge to stay at elite level

With apologies to Khalil Mack, the Bears defense on Tuesday officially lost the player it could arguably least afford to lose when defensive lineman Akiem Hicks was placed on injured reserve with the elbow injury suffered early in the loss to the Oakland Raiders in London.

Perhaps “lost” isn’t entirely accurate, since “he’s going to be with us in meetings and for game-planning and on the sidelines on game days,” said defensive line coach Jay Rodgers. “You’re going to feel his presence. But we’ve got a good group with guys who can step into that role and play well.

“He’ll be a voice on the sideline, the classroom, everything we do. His personality will still be here… . He’s part of us, the Bears family, this organization.”

But great units are a combination of personalities as well as talents, and Hicks has been a defining presence both on and off the football field since he was signed as a free agent in 2016.

Hicks has been a vital influence with young players. Hicks and veteran defensive end Willie Young began a weekly dinner out with then-rookie Leonard Floyd. When the Bears landed a late-round gem in defensive lineman Bilal Nichols in the 2018 draft, Hicks was again a presence.

“He pretty much molded me into the young player I am,” Nichols said. “It just hurt to see him go through that and catch those types of breaks because I know how hard he worked.”

But the absence of Hicks projects to have its obviously most serious impact on the field, at a time when the Bears are struggling to stay within hailing distance of leaders in both the NFC North as well as the NFC in general.

The absence of any consistent offensive play underscores the importance of the defense remaining among the NFL’s best.

Linchpin figure

In a league where the margin between division leader and missing the playoffs is sometimes alarmingly thin, the Bears will be wary of players feeling some need to break their assignment integrity and take out-of-scheme risks to make a play because of missing Hicks.

“I remember last year when we lost Khalil Mack for the Buffalo game and Jets game, and we had some guys who came in and filled in those shoes and did pretty well,” Rodgers said. “We expect the thing. The ‘next guy up’ mentality is real. There’s a reason why we build the roster the way we build it.

“We didn’t have Akiem for the Minnesota game and I thought we played pretty well in that game. It’s all about understanding what your job is and what your role is, how to execute and execute under pressure, and do what we do. We’re not asking anybody to go outside the framework of the defense or do anything extra special. We’re asking you to do your job because you’re one of 11 in the defense.”

It is Rodgers’ task to help players modulate and avoid trying to do too much. The proverbial “take your game to another level,” which is hugely insulting because it presumes a player wasn’t giving the max previously.

And Rodgers is correct, that the Bears without Hicks allowed their season-low points (6) and second-lowest yardage total (222) of the season in the win over Minnesota. That game was one of only two in which the Vikings (4-2) failed to score 28 or more points, and whether the Bears could throttle Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook and that offense again so thoroughly without Hicks would be questionable.

But the fact remains that Hicks rates as the central figure on a very good defense. Without Hicks for most of the Oakland game, the Bears allowed their highest point (24) and yardage (398) totals of the season and allowed more rushing yards (169) than in any other two 2019 games combined.

The Bears were a top-10 defense before Mack arrived at the start of last season. With Hicks missing all of one game (Minnesota), most of another (Oakland) and playing less than half the snaps in a third with a knee injury (Washington), they rank sixth in yards and third in points allowed.

The Bears ranked a dismal 20th in both points and yards allowed in 2015, the year before the Hicks signing. They immediately improved to 15th in scoring defense in 2016, then into the top 10 in both points and yards allowed in 2017.

The NFL then took notice last season, with Hicks selected to his first Pro Bowl and being given the fourth-highest rating among defensive linemen by Pro Football Focus.

One player CAN make that much difference

That the Bears performed well without all or part of Hicks vs. Washington and Minnesota does suggest encouragement, particularly if Nichols can play well with a hand injury that cost him the last three games.

The Oakland game points in an entirely opposite direction. It falls to the Bears collectively to keep the Hicks loss from having the kind of devastating effect that a handful of season-ending injuries had on past Bears defenses:

DT Henry Melton, 2013

The 2013 Bears broke fast (3-0) under new coach Marc Trestman and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. The defense and a portion of the season collapsed when Melton, voted to the Pro Bowl in 2012 and franchise-tagged by the Bears in 2013, was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered in game three against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

A defense that included Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers, Charles Tillman allowed 24.7 ppg and 330 ypg for the three games Melton played. Over the final 13 games those indicators ballooned to 31.1 ppg. and 409 yards.

MLB Brian Urlacher, 2009

The Bears lost their Hall of Fame middle linebacker and linchpin at the end of the first half of the first game, in Green Bay. The defense still had Lance Briggs, Alex Brown, Tommie Harris and Charles Tillman, but Brown said after the season that the unit never made up for the loss of both the performance and leadership levels 54 represented.

From 2005-2012, Urlacher’s missed season was one of only two in which the Bears finished sub-.500.

DL Dan Hampton, 1989

The Bears opened 4-0. Hampton suffered a season-ending knee injury, and the team that had reached the 1988 NFC Championship game and still had Richard Dent, Steve McMichael, William Perry, Mike Singletary and Donnell Woolford proceeded to go 2-10 the rest of the way.

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As Mitch Trubisky goes, so do the Bears. Right now, that looks like a good thing.

USA Today

As Mitch Trubisky goes, so do the Bears. Right now, that looks like a good thing.

CHICAGO – The only person who wasn’t happy for Mitch Trubisky was Mitch Trubisky. 

If you watched the suited, showered, and subdued Trubisky stand at the podium under Soldier Field on Thursday night, you would have never guessed he just kept the Bears’ playoff hopes alive by throwing for 241 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-24 win. Instead, the much-maligned quarterback navigated through the 12-minute press conference with the enthusiasm of someone reporting for jury duty.

“Nah, I don’t care about that,” Trubisky said, when asked if he’ll take a moment over the next 11 days to enjoy the win. “I’m just trying to get better every week. Continue to stay hungry and progress each week. We’ve gotten better over the last couple weeks – I’m talking as a team – and that’s what’s most important to me. That’s what allows you to play better as an individual - if you focus on the team first.” 

Aside from the hip debacle in Los Angeles, the quarterback’s infamously-unflappable demeanor hasn’t changed much throughout the few ups and many, many more downs of his third NFL season. What has changed, noticeably, has been his play on the field. Trubisky has ended the last two games with quarterback ratings over 100 and finished both with completion percentages over 70% – the first time he’s gotten over that benchmark since Week 3 against Washington, and only the third time all year. He’s now thrown six touchdowns in two games; Trubisky didn’t even have his sixth touchdown pass of the season until Week 10. 

He was not without flaws on Thursday night, as another ill-advised red zone interception shot the Bears' first drive in the foot. But once again, it was his response – a six-play, 46 yard drive that resulted in the tying score – that had the Bears talking after Club Dub allowed the media in. 

"He's the same guy whether he throws a pick or he doesnt," Charles Leno said. "He's the same guy from the beginning of the game to the end. That's what I love about him."

And while he wasn’t interested in spending time talking about his mini-renaissance, his teammates were more than happy to set the record straight. 

“He’s been a leader,” said Anthony Miller, who continued his strong second-half play with another touchdown catch of his own. “A lot of people have been doubting him, calling him this, that and the third. But we’ve been rocking with him in this locker room. We’ve always had confidence in him, coach has had confidence in him, and he’s just showing y’all we he can do. It’s no surprise to us.”

“We followed our leader Mitch…” added David Montgomery. “ … For me, it’s like a ‘ah-ha!’ moment. Because you see somebody work so hard day-in and day-out. But you’re finally able to see it. A lot of people kind of jumped ship on 10, but Coach Nagy always preaches about staying together as one, and Mitch steps up. I’m just happy for him and happy he’s our quarterback.” 

A packed Soldier Field was even treated to some vintage (if you consider 2018 to be a long time ago, which the Bears players DEFINITELY do) Trubisky on Thursday night. At the start of the 4th quarter, in a two-score game, the Bears dialed up on option play on 1st and 10. Trubisky made the right read, tucked the ball and – after some fine blocking up front – shook Cowboys’ safety Xavier Woods out of his shoes on the way to a 23-yard score. 

“The best part of that, for me, was how excited my teammates got afterwards.” Trubisky said. “Really cool moment. It was good.” 

The Bears have fully adopted the no-one-believes-in-us mantra, but in the quarterback’s case, it’s true. Everyone on the Bears have stood behind him – perhaps at times to a fault – and now, or at least the next 11 days, that decision is starting to feel justifiable. 

“I think one thing is for sure, everybody is seeing what type of people we have on this football team,” Nagy said. “No one has flinched. We've pulled together, become even tighter. We're winning football games now. We're playing as a team.”

Mitch Trubisky's domination of the Cowboys hints at consistency in the future


Mitch Trubisky's domination of the Cowboys hints at consistency in the future

The Bears' win over Cowboys a true turning point for Trubisky 

Matt Nagy had it wrong. After Mitch Trubisky had rallied for a fourth-quarter comeback against the inept Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day, Nagy treated himself and his quarterback to a spot of gush:

“Today was Mitch’s day,” Nagy declared.

No. THIS Thursday was Trubisky’s day, a moment when a young quarterback, with the season hanging in the balance, took the heart out of a top-10 defense in the course of a 31-24 upset of the Dallas Cowboys, a third straight win for a now 7-6 Bears team that put together a rare complete game in all phases.

The result, the Bears’ fourth in their last five, allowed BearsNation to keep dreaming playoff dreams, particularly with the Minnesota Vikings (8-4) hosting Detroit on Sunday and the Lions having won three of the last five in Minneapolis. The Vikings and Los Angeles Rams both need to lose two of their final four while the Bears win out, but stranger things have happened this NFL season.

“What I do like is everybody seeing what kind of people we have on this football team,” Nagy said, adding, “I just know that we gotta win. If we don’t win, none of those [playoff-chances] percentages matter.”

But the point this night was Trubisky, who played arguably his finest game as an NFL quarterback, factoring in the caliber of opposition, pressure on the game and his total performance quantitatively and qualitatively. This occasion marked consecutive games in which Trubisky has taken the field trailing at some point trailing and left it winning.

The question that the coming weeks will answer is whether this in fact was something of a turning point in Trubisky’s career, regardless of whether he gets his team to the postseason. Trubisky has had better games statistically but none in games of this importance and against a defense as good as Dallas’.

“That’s what we’re going for, what the whole point of this is,” Trubisky said. “I think it makes us hungrier and we want that feeling week after week.”

Trubisky took charge after a first-drive disaster in the form of his fourth 2019 red-zone interception and picked the Bears up, not once but twice in a must-win situation. His 115.5 rating, on 23-of-31 passing for 244 yards and three touchdowns, was the highest of his career against a top-10 defense and the first since the second and third games of his rookie season when coach John Fox and Dowell Loggains strait-jacketed him.

This was entirely different, in multiple ways, both for the quarterback and the entire team.

What Trubisky didn’t cut out of the Cowboys soul with a 17-point first half, leading an offense that hadn’t scored 17 points in six of its previous 12 games, the defense did in eviscerating a Dallas offense that in 2019 had amassed 400-plus yard nine times and 399 once. Despite missing four starters (three injury inactives plus linebacker Roquan Smith, down with a pectoral injury early in the first quarter), the defense held Dallas to 184 yards through three quarters, at which time the Bears led 24-7, their biggest third-quarter bulge since the 28-9 tally vs. Washington back in game three.

A fumble by running back David Montgomery at the Dallas 40 gave the ball to the Cowboys late in the third quarter with the Bears driving for an elimination score. The resulting touchdown, a second by running back Ezekiel Elliott of two yards, allowed Dallas within 10 at 24-14.

Trubisky’s comebacks

But somehow fittingly on this occasion, Trubisky answered that himself, effectively calling his own number and keeping the football on a zone-read. He then proceeded to weave his way nine yards through dispirited Cowboys for a score that left the Cowboys screaming at each other on the bench or just at anything handy on a night when yelling was about all they could do well.

“The best part of that for me was how excited my teammates got afterwards.” Trubisky said, smiling.

Very, very significantly, it was not the first “comeback” Trubisky engineered on a night when he looked every bit like an NFL playoff quarterback.

Trubisky shook off a first-drive interception in the red zone, his fourth of the season, to generate four straight scoring drives that included touchdown passes of five and eight yards to Allen Robinson and 14 to Anthony Miller and a 36-yard Eddy Pineiro field goal.

According to Stats by STATS, Trubisky became the first quarterback in NFL history to complete more than 70 percent of his passes on more than 30 attempts, throw three or more touchdown passes, rush for more than 50 yards and rush for a touchdown.

In a major positive indicator for the offense under Trubisky, the offense has gone from Robinson leading or tied for most receptions in six of the first seven games, to no receiver leading two weeks in a row over the last six games: Taylor Gabriel/David Montgomery vs. Philadelphia, Robinson vs. Detroit, Gabriel vs. the Rams, Tarik Cohen at the Giants, Miller in Detroit and Cohen (6) against Dallas.

A suspect Dallas team but….

One sense going into Thursday night was that if the Cowboys fell behind, they were a reasonable bet to emotionally quit, an underachieving team that has listened the past few weeks to owner Jerry Jones oil the hinges of a trap door under his head coach Jason Garrett, a situation not entirely to the liking of his team. Indeed, as the first half wore on and the Bears scored to tie, then lead 10-7, the Cowboys became increasingly ragged, with receivers clearly not in phase with quarterback Dak Prescott and the Cowboys eventually missing a 42-yard field goal.

But NFL teams rarely quit without being beaten, which the Bears did in holding All-Pro running back Elliott and one of the NFL’s elite offensive lines to 81 rushing yards, only 10 of which Elliott gained in the second half.

One overarching reality Thursday night was that the Bears weren’t playing some NFL version of the Washington Generals.

This was a moment of reckoning for the Bears and Trubisky in particular in a season in which five of their six victories were against teams with three or fewer wins (Washington, Detroit, New York), for an offense that failed to score 20 points in seven of its 12 games. Trubisky for his part, with a history of lackluster performances against better defenses, had evinced next to no ability to lift his game against competition at the higher levels, which the Dallas Cowboys defense was, ranking in the top 10 for fewest points and total and passing yards allowed.

“The guys on offense are stepping up to the challenge, accepting it,” Nagy said. “That was a very, very good front four there today and that’s a ‘light’ way to put it.”

Consistency coming?

The situation had not reached the depths of “Good Rex/Bad Rex” over Trubisky’s going-on three Bears season. But his inconsistency from game to game, even within games, has loomed as a disturbing element in a sport where “consistency” is the first must-have virtue cited by coaches and players.

Actually, that’s not altogether accurate. Trubisky has had stretches of consistency but they have too often been stretches of mediocrity: three games of sub-87 passer ratings (Saints, Chargers, Eagles), a 131.0 rating despite five sacks in a win over Detroit, then two clunkers (Rams, Giants), then good again against the Lions.

This is not the first season Trubisky’s performance chart resembles a seismograph. Last season three tepid performances to start the season were followed by games vs. Tampa Bay and Miami with a combined 9 TD passes and one interception folding into passer ratings of 154.6 and 122.5. He closed with three straight strong outings in wins over Green Bay, San Francisco, and Minnesota, then let the playoff game get away with three quarters of vapid before a good fourth quarter, which was not enough thanks to Cody Parkey.

And running through all of that has been a pattern of Trubisky failing to produce good games against better teams. That had the feeling of changing Thursday night.

“We’ve just got to focus on staying hungry and staying humble each week,” Trubisky said.

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