Much of the Bears’ defensive success in 2018 began up front with the big guys.
Defensive tackle Akiem Hicks was voted to his first Pro Bowl, a well-deserved and overdue honor for the player who has become the line’s driving force. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman had the best of his four seasons, living up to the four-year, $42 million extension he signed just before the start of the regular season.
Rookie fifth-round pick Bilal Nichols exceeded expectations at defensive end. By the end of the season, he had earned the largest share of playing time on the right side, at the expense of 2016 third-round draft pick Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who was undrafted out of Texas-El Paso in 2016.
Under new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, the D-line should enjoy more continuity than any position on that side of the ball because it’s the only unit whose position coach, Jay Rodgers, will be back from last year’s staff.
Hicks’ two-way play is the key to the group. As he has in each of his three seasons with the Bears, Hicks started all 16 games and was a dominant force vs. the run, while also providing excellent pass-rush pressure for a 6-foot-5, 332-pound anchor.
Hicks came with the reputation of a talented player who didn’t always give maximum effort, but his effort and consistency have not been a question with the Bears. He has 23 sacks in his three years in Chicago, far more than any other Bear and more than twice the 9.5 he had in his first four seasons with the Saints and Patriots.
“I think for him to finally get recognized for the Pro Bowl – that was huge,” coach Matt Nagy said after the season. “Akiem is such a significant player for us up front. He’s become one of our team leaders, and just to see him grow in his years in the league, I’m so proud of him, and just the level of play he’s at right now.
“He’s been a consistent player for us week in and week out. I still think he’s getting better. He still talks about that all the time. His work ethic, how hard he trains, that’s going to continue. Really that whole front [played well], but Akiem is the catalyst behind the group.”
On the nose, the 6-foot-4, 320-pound Goldman doesn’t have the opportunity to put up numbers like Hicks, but his value as a run-stuffer and blocker-absorber is well known to teammates and coaches.
“I think Eddie’s played terrific all year,” Rodgers said late in the season. “He doesn’t have all the sexy statistics you see, but the thing about him is, he’s getting double-teamed every single run play, and … he’s holding his point pretty good.
“When people are trying to run in his direction, he’s making those plays. When they see his big body in those gaps, they’re running away from him. There’s a lot of unseen production that you see from Eddie Goldman. He’s done a really good job this year.”
Nichols began slowly as he made the adjustment from Delaware to the NFL, but in Week 4 against the Bucs, he had his coming-out party, with a half-sack, two tackles for loss and four total tackles. He played a season-high 67 percent of the snaps in the regular-season finale.
“He continues to improve,” Rodgers said of Nichols, who had 1.5 sacks in the final three games. “He’s a smart kid, loves football, plays with a chip on his shoulder and improves every week. That’s why you see his play-time percentage go up because he’s doing s lot of good things.”
Bullard and Robertson-Harris, who are both 25, are still young enough to have some upside, but both need to make a more consistent impact and turn potential into production.
Most improved: Nichols
Best play: Take your pick of any of the five tackles for loss Hicks had against the Vikings on Nov. 18. The Rams’ Aaron Donald, who had six, was the only player in the NFL last season with more tackles for loss in a game.
Key stat: Hicks finished with 16 quarterback hits, only two fewer than outside linebacker Khalil Mack.
Room for improvement: While the Bears got excellent production from Hicks and Goldman, they need more from the defensive right end in their three-man base front. It could come from Nichols, who showed promise as a rookie. Although he lacks outstanding qualities, Nichols showed more consistent production than Bullard or Robertson-Harris.