Khalil Mack is thought of as the Bears most dominant defensive player, yet I’d argue that Mack isn’t the most important player to Chicago’s defense. Insert Akiem Hicks.
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In 2019, Hicks only played in five games, registering one sack and ten combined tackles. That doesn’t sound great, but just look at Hicks’ stats from 2018. Not only did Hicks make the Pro Bowl that season, but he had 7.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and 55 combined tackles. According to PFF, Hicks actually outplayed Mack in 2018. PFF gave Hicks a 91.7 player grade, while Mack received a 90.4 player grade.
Is that a huge difference? Not really, but it shows just how underrated and dominant Akiem Hicks is. Not to mention, in the 5 games Hicks was healthy for in 2019, the Bears defense surrendered on average only 13 points. Compared to the 20 points they averaged when Hicks wasn’t healthy, I’d say that there is a strong correlation to how the Bears defense plays when their star defensive lineman is and isn’t on the field.
And it’s not like five games is a small sample size. If it were two or three games, maybe there’s an argument. But when you’re averaging out five games together, a seven point spread is no fluke.
If that hasn’t convinced you of the importance of Hicks, I’ll throw this at you too. Last season, Khalil Mack was held to his lowest sack count of his career since his rookie season. 8.5 sacks is no small feat, but for a player as dominant as Mack is supposed to be, that’s a down year. Yet with Hicks on the field in 2018, Mack tallied 12.5 sacks. Although the decrease in sacks could be considered nothing more than a down year, I think the evidence points otherwise.
When Hicks was on the field, Chicago gave up less points; that’s a fact. Therefore, it seems logical that when Hicks wasn’t on the field Chicago’s defensive players were less productive, accounting for Mack’s drop in production.
But there’s another explanation too. With Hicks gone, opposing offensive lines could feel comfortable putting more men on Mack, without the threat of Hicks coming from the other side and getting to the quarterback. Therefore, with Hicks back and the free agent acquisition of Robert Quinn, opposing offenses really have to worry about the Bears pass rush. No longer can they double team Mack and expect to shut down the Bears ability to sack the quarterback.
Are you convinced yet? Hicks is proven to make the players around him better, and with that said, I think he is deserving to be known as the X-Factor of Chuck Pagano’s defense. I’m not saying he’s the most talented defensive player in Chicago, but with him healthy and playing like he did in 2018, then this Bears defense has a legitimate shot at being the NFL’s best defensive unit in 2020.
Without Hicks for most of the season last year, the Bears defense was good but not elite. They were no match for defenses like the Patriots, Bills, or Steelers. But with Hicks back on Chicago’s defensive line, expect big things from the Bears defense in 2020.
Do you agree that Akiem Hicks should be considered as the Bears defensive X-Factor? Is he the make or break player for Chicago’s defensive unit? Leave your thoughts in the comment section down below!