Akiem Hicks

Final Bears thoughts: Will Akiem Hicks earn his deserved spot in the Pro Bowl?

Final Bears thoughts: Will Akiem Hicks earn his deserved spot in the Pro Bowl?

Akiem Hicks deserved to be a Pro Bowler in 2017, a year in which he led the Bears with 8 1/2 sacks while proving to be one of the best run-stuffing defensive linemen in football. But it wasn’t even that he wasn’t selected to the roster — he was only a fourth alternate, which seemed like a slap in the face to a guy who had a standout season.
 
The biggest prohibitive factor for Hicks’ Pro Bowl campaign, though, was the Bears’ 5-11 record and general irrelevance in the NFL landscape.
 
“Yeah, it doesn’t really work out when you don’t have the record to match your performance, right?” Hicks said last year.
 
The Bears’ record now matches Hicks’ performance. He’s having an outstanding season as part of the league’s best defense: His 30 stops, defined by Pro Football Focus as plays that result in a “loss” for the offense, are the most among defensive linemen this year. He has six sacks and 39 total pressures, pairing good pass rushing productivity with his elite-level run defense.
 
All that adds up to an impressive Pro Bowl resume. Fan voting — which counts for one-third of determining the roster, with the other thirds coming from player and coach voting — ended on Thursday, with Hicks receiving the second-highest number of votes among NFC defensive linemen. The guy ahead of him is Aaron Donald, and there’s certainly no shame in that.
 
“It would be an honor,” Hicks said. “It’s something that I’ve aspired to achieve, it’s something that I’ve wanted for a really long time. Is it going to happen and is it a guarantee to happen? No. Have I been shafted before? Yes. Will it hurt the same? It for sure will. But that’s what we got. That’s what we gotta deal with. So I hope everything goes the way that I deserve but we’ll see.”
 
Hicks, though, would prefer to make the Pro Bowl roster and then not play in the actual game — which would mean the Bears would be preparing for the Super Bowl.
 
“The objective is to be able to play in the biggest game,” Hicks said. “We’ll see how all that shakes out.”
 
Packed for Chicago
 

Earlier this year, Allen Robinson told a Jacksonville TV station that his free agency decision came down to the Bears and the Green Bay Packers. That he chose the Bears — with an unproven coach and unproven quarterback — over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers was a notable leap of faith, but one in which Robinson was always confident.
 
“For me, since early on in free agency, I had my eyes on Chicago,” Robinson said. “I think that was the big thing for me as far as again, Chicago not only had Mitch Trubisky and coach Nagy, but the city of Chicago. Being close to my hometown (Detroit), being in a city that I was pretty familiar with — and there’s a lot that goes behind Chicago. Chicago is a big sports town, as far as a player, there’s no other place that you would want to play in like this. For me, it was a lot that went into Chicago more than just some of the small variables.”
 
Not has Robinson’s decision paid off with an all-but-confirmed playoff berth — which would be the first of his career — but he’s taken advantage of his platform in Chicago. Robinson’s Within Reach Foundation on Monday raised more than $112,000, which will allow his foundation to launch “Reach For a Book” reading rooms at Title I elementary schools and Boys & Girls Clubs.
 
Deflected praise
 
The Associated Press this week named Nagy the NFL’s best coach in 2018, likely the first of a handful of coach of the year honors the first-year Bears’ coach will receive.
 
Nagy, though, was quick to credit everyone else around the Bears for his personal achievement.
 
“That kinda stuff — the individual awards, for everybody, I think to me when you hear something like that, especially as a head coach, it speaks to who we are,” Nagy said. “When you hear an award like that, you get humbled by it, you appreciate it, but it’s all about everybody in this building. It’s about the players. so that’s pretty good for them.”

For Bears, a statement win over Rams puts playoffs one “W” away

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USA TODAY

For Bears, a statement win over Rams puts playoffs one “W” away

As the Bears have too often learned the hard way this season, it’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. And in a game the NFL flex-scheduled to give the nation an uncluttered look at what are all but assured to be two playoff teams, the Bears seized control of their 2018 destiny with a 15-6 win in which they throttled the playoff-bound offense of the Los Angeles Rams in a way unseen to this point of the season.

The Bears (9-4) held a Rams team that had scored 30 or more points 10 times in 12 games and averaged 440 yards per game without a touchdown and to 214 total yards, fewest since the finale of the 2016 season, Los Angeles quarterback Jared Goff’s rookie year. The Rams averaged nearly 15 points in their last three fourth quarters before Sunday. They were shut out when it mattered most by the Bears, the first time in nine games that the NFL’s No. 2 scoring-offense hadn’t scored in the final quarter.

That fourth quarter against a dominant Rams (11-2) offense may provide a pivotal, convincing learning step for a team still trying to close games they have in their control.

“I think we’ve had those moments where we didn’t finish and still came out on top,” said defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, who needed a break during his media get-together to calm down from the game. “[After] so many times this season, I think it finally hit home for us and we said, ‘We have been playing a great three quarters and giving up points in the fourth quarter.

“Imagine how good our defense would be statistically if we didn’t have the fourth quarters. That’s the lesson I take away from this.”

The Bears won a game with quarterback Mitchell Trubisky having his worst game as a professional, with a career-low passer rating of 33.3 on 16-of-30 passing for 110 yards with three interceptions and his only touchdown pass going to an offensive tackle.

Playoff push

In the process, the Bears put themselves in position of needing win just one in their final three games to clinch at least a wild-card berth. That could come next Sunday at home against a possibly reenergized Green Bay Packers team after the coaching change last week, who ended a four-game losing streak Sunday with a win over Atlanta.

The Minnesota Vikings visit the Seattle Seahawks on Monday night, matching up two of the three five-loss teams remaining (plus division-leading 8-5 Dallas), and the Bears hold a tiebreaker edge with a 7-2 mark in the NFC. If the Vikings lose, the Bears will hold a 2-1/2 game lead in the NFC North with three games to play.

“Our guys have worked hard to put ourselves in this position,” said head coach Matt Nagy. “It’s not easy. It started for just the belief at the very beginning, when we started in training camp, then you start having some different types of games, some different losses... .

“The stage wasn’t too big for them.”

Sunday night was not so much a rebound game from the upset loss last week to the middling New York Giants as it was using that defeat as a launch point.

“I think, if anything, that propelled us even more because we know what kind of team we are,” Hicks said. “We didn’t anticipate losing that game, so coming into this week, we put a lot more in the tank.”

That they put a lot more in the tank for the Rams hints at a team that is still learning that it cannot go into any NFL week complacent, which the Bears have done (Miami, New York) and even let off during games (Green Bay).

Coaches placed an enormous, almost apocalyptic focus on this game, players indicated. This was a night that represented a test kitchen for what the Bears have endeavored to become – a legitimate contender in the NFC to start with, and ideally beyond. Notably perhaps, with the burgeoning fascination with offense as the NFL has tilted the game in favor of that side of the football, the Bears tilted it back with defense, even with defense masquerading as offense for their only touchdown of the game.

Quarterback duel…not

What was highly anticipated to be a showcase for two of the NFL’s emerging stars at quarterback was anything but. Jared Goff generated a first-half passer rating of 21.0 on the strength of two interceptions. Trubisky would’ve been happy with that; the Bears quarterback was 9-for-20 with two of his own interceptions and rating of 12.5 for two quarters of wildly missing open receivers and looking every bit the young quarterback who’d been out for the past two games and was coming back from a throwing-shoulder issue.

“When you look at it numbers-wise,” Nagy said, “I think there were some throws -- some of the interceptions sailed on him a little bit. It wasn't his best game. You know, what I told him, I said, ‘Who cares?’ I mean, we're about winning the games.

"He knows that we can all play better. It's not all on him. So he's going to get better from it. We talked again with our team about the next-play mentality. These are the ones that you look back, for myself as a coach, for him as a quarterback, and you grow from.

"Again, as I've always said, when you win the game, it's a lot easier to critique and understand the why part, use it to help you down the road. In the end, do I care? Can we be better as an offense? Yes. Do I care about numbers? Not one bit.”

Trubisky did manage one touchdown pass, running his string of games with at least one touchdown pass to eight, excepting the two games missed with the shoulder strain.

Then again, somewhere general manager Ryan Pace may have been head-scratching, thinking that he’d spent much of the offseason and millions of McCaskey dollars getting his new head coach a whole passel of skill-position threats.

Then, against one of the top teams in the NFL, his coach instead trots out an entire squadron of behemoths – tackle Bradley Sowell, defensive linemen Jonathan Bullard, Akiem Hicks, Bilal Nichols and Roy Robertson-Harris – and has his quarterback throw to Sowell, whose sole contribution to NFL “offense” was an 11-yard kickoff return his rookie year (2012) as an Indianapolis Colt.

The Bears held defensive tackle Aaron Donald without a sack for just the second time in the Rams’ last 10 games and the Rams to just one total sack of Trubisky in a game that saw the Bears rush for a season-high 194 yards (101 by Jordan Howard), the most since the 232 against Cincinnati Dec. 10, 2017.

“We had a plan for [Donald],” Trubisky said. “[The Rams] got a good defense all the way around. We had a plan for Donald. The O-line did a great job keeping him in check all night. That's what we wanted to do.

“Obviously we had some turnovers, which falls on me. He didn't have any game-destructive plays that he usually causes. That's something that we definitely kept in the back of our minds.”

If there was a smudge on the glass it was another missed field goal by Cody Parkey, this from 38 yards in the fourth quarter when a conversion would have put the Bears up by 12 points instead of within reach of a Los Angeles touchdown and field goal.

The Bears can address and worry about that tomorrow. For now, “it's a great win for us,” Nagy said.

“I think more than anything, it's going to continue to keep letting our guys understand that every team in the NFL, every game is different. Last week against the Giants, that game is going to be different than the following week. There's so much parity.

“The belief of our guys. They hear me talk about it. But now to do it, for them to go out and do it, for a [Rams] team to only have one loss all year long in as far of the season as we are, it's so powerful for our guys now because it helps us grow with confidence, it helps us grow togetherness.

“When you teach that and you talk about it over and over and over as a culture, building everyone together as a family, then they do it, it just lights a fire. It puts us in a great position.”

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Takeaways from Bears loss: A playoff setback, Green Bay coaching search through Chicago?

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AP

Takeaways from Bears loss: A playoff setback, Green Bay coaching search through Chicago?

The loss to the Giants, coming days after the New Orleans Saints fell to the Dallas Cowboys, dealt a severe blow to any hopes the Bears had for avoiding a de facto play-in game against a wild card. It also hinted at a not-ready-for-prime-time Bears persona; they’ll get another chance to establish that next Sunday night vs. the Rams, although it’s their ability to focus on lesser lights (Giants, Dolphins) that's a bit concerning.

But that’s for another discussion.
 
Just wandering the NFC in the meantime, the Saints have a final quarter-season with a measure of difficulty: two games against 6-6 Carolina, which has lost its last four games to fall out of a playoff seed, and one at home with Pittsburgh, which has lost its last two and suddenly is only a half-game up on Baltimore in the AFC North. One-time doormat Tampa Bay has won its last two, beat the Saints opening day in New Orleans  and gets the Saints in Raymond James Stadium this time.
 
But the Bears failed to take care of something important that they could control, which was a conference game on a day when Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota were all losing; they still have some slack but nothing like they would’ve enjoyed with a 2-1/2-game bulge on the Vikings with four to play.
 
And left themselves exposed in a tiebreaker with the Saints with this second conference loss.
 
The Bears’ remaining four games include the Rams next Sunday night, with Los Angeles playing for the No. 1 postseason seed; Green Bay under a new head coach; and on the road vs. Minnesota, where the Bears have lost six straight. The other final-four game is at San Francisco, currently the worst (2-10) team in the NFC, but the Cardinals were a two-win team when they defeated Green Bay and the Giants were a three-win team when they downed the Bears, and the 49ers’ only two wins have come at home.
 
“There is way too much parity in this league,” coach Matt Nagy said after the Giants loss. It was an observation but also a warning to his team, which appeared to have taken the Giants too lightly early in a game where there was little to no homefield advantage with the thousands of stay-aways and the Bears had the advantage of a mini-off-week to prepare.
 
Nagy has consistently pointed to the importance of he and his team learning from failures as well as successes. But if there is a nagging (pun intended) concern coming out of East Rutherford, it is that the Bears do not look to have learned from their other truly bad ’18 loss – at Miami, where they also blew a lead and lost on an OT field goal. That game was also after a break, that time the full off-week.
 
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Look at Bears for Mike McCarthy replacement?
 
Mike McCarthy’s abrupt firing by the Green Bay Packers on Sunday creates a situation that should create more than a little passing (another pun intended) interest in Chicago. For one thing, any coaching change in the NFC North is by definition of major, major interest to the other three teams in the division.
 
For another, an annual offseason standard story line with the Bears is the debate over defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s prospects to be hired as a head coach. He’s obviously going to be considered by the Packers – searches like this cast huge nets – along with myriad other successful coordinators, offense, defense or special teams.
 
But more intriguing might be current offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich.
 
Helfrich fits the current hot NFL demographic profile: age (45), side of the football (offense), rank (coordinator), experience around an upward-trending creative NFL offense (Bears). He’s also a one-off shoot from the Andy Reid coaching tree, working as he has with Reid disciple Nagy.
 
But Helfrich also has head-coaching experience (Oregon) that included two very good and one good season in four before he was fired by the Ducks.
 
Only one season around the NFL is thin, but college coaches have come in with none. Helfrich rates as a very long shot, and nothing will happen until January, but longer shots have come in.
 
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Too cute for no reason?
 
Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, safety Eddie Jackson and defensive lineman Roy Robertson-Harris each playing a snap on offense Sunday is certainly entertaining, as it was against Minnesota (Hicks, Robertson-Harris).
 
But Mike Ditka did that sort of thing with William Perry to stick it to Bill Walsh initially and then to the Packers. Something about using prominent defensive starters like Hicks and Jackson on offense, after all the offseason upgrades on that side of the football, has the feel of gimmick. Robertson-Harris played more snaps on offense (one) than guard Eric Kush; is that defensive lineman a better short-yardage blocker than Kush, an early-season starter? Really? For that matter, why not Eddie Goldman, as long as it’s a situation where size does matter?
 
Add to that the use of Chase Daniel as a primary receiver on the Tarik Cohen TD pass. Daniel was having enough trouble holding onto the football as it was (four fumbles, two interceptions thrown). And any play that injects discretionary risk into a game that has stratospheric levels of it naturally – and which the Bears were already one snap away from having Tyler Bray under center – is foolish bordering on reckless.
 
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Volunteers for head coach in Chicago? Somebody? Anybody?
 
Anybody up for taking a job as a head coach in Chicago? Over the past 11 months, the Bears fired John Fox, the Blackhawks fired Joel Quenneville and the Bulls on Monday fired Fred Hoiberg. The Cubs haven’t launched Joe Maddon but he’s working at the moment without a net in the form of a contract extension past its 2019 expiration date.
 
Rick Renteria and the White Sox – anything about that strike you as secure?
 
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A hunt for Hunt?
 
Last weekend’s release of Kareem Hunt by the Kansas City Chiefs creates a…situation…for some team. The Bears could be that “some team,” although because of his battery of a woman last February in Cleveland, Hunt will still have to serve any NFL suspension after/if he is signed by some team.
 
The Hunt incident offers the Bears an opportunity to acquire not only the exact type of running back that Matt Nagy envisions in his offense, but actually the exact back himself. This, however, is not Khalil Mack or Josh Sitton, elite-level players unexpectedly available at positions of need for the Bears.
 
The supposition here is that the Bears will not be significant players in any Hunt odyssey. Hunt’s actions on the videotape, apart from any lying to the Chiefs after things started to come out, will presumably be too reprehensible even for a team that gave and was burned by a second chance given to defensive lineman Ray McDonald.
 
Barring a draft-related trade, at this point the Bears have the option of using their first 2019 draft pick, in round three, on a running back. It is the round in which the Chiefs found Hunt last year.
 
Nagy was on the offensive staff under Andy Reid in Kansas City when the Chiefs drafted running backs in 2013, 2014 and ’17 (Hunt). And when Nagy was apprenticing under Reid in Philadelphia, the Eagles drafted six running backs in the six years from 2007-12, even after hitting big with LeSean McCoy in ’09.
 
Then again, with the way Nagy and Helfrich have spun the offense, as in (excluding Daniel kneel-downs in all cases) rushing 25 times for 106 yards in Sunday’s first half, then three times for eight yards in the second, the exact running-back template is a little foggy, although the Giants ostensibly took the run game away from the Bears.
 
“The second half, [the Giants] had a little plan for [Jordan Howard],” Nagy said. ”I would’ve loved to be able to call more runs but they did a pretty good job of getting into our backfield and stopping the run… . I don’t think I’d change what I did. We got into a rhythm in the fourth quarter and that was running the ball.”
 
No sense going into that whole topic, again, because Nagy’s concept for his run game likely won’t appear through the fog until he has a back of his choosing. Which isn’t likely to be Hunt.