Although the Bears expect to welcome back Pro Bowler Akiem Hicks on Sunday at Lambeau Field for the first time since October, they’ll officially be without four additional starters still on the active roster in yet another must-win game, the 200th all-time meeting with the Green Bay Packers.
Taylor Gabriel and Ben Braunecker (concussions), as well as Bobby Massie (ankle) will miss their third consecutive contests, while Danny Trevathan (elbow) sits out a fifth straight game. Those four were ruled out Friday, when top rotational defensive lineman Roy Robertson-Harris (ankle) and No. 3 wide receiver Javon Wims (knee) were listed as questionable after getting in limited work, encouraging after they both sat out the first two practices in Week 15.
Veteran Prince Amukamara, who sat out for the first time this season with a hamstring injury in last week’s impressive win over the Dallas Cowboys, was a full practice participant all three days and removed from the final injury report.
Victorious in three straight and back above .500 for the first time since Week 6, the Bears (7-6) likely need to win their final three games, in addition to receiving help from the Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams, to clinch a wild-card berth. Hicks’ likely return to the defensive line could spark a pass rush that was often lifeless in his absence but had five sacks in the first meeting with the Packers, a 10-3 season-opening loss, despite limiting Green Bay to 213 yards of offense.
And although much of the focus centers on how the presence of Hicks – who can be activated as late as 3 p.m. Saturday and play in Green Bay – helps Khalil Mack, it’s possible known Packer smacker Leonard Floyd can benefit even more from Hicks’ return. Consider the fact that of Floyd’s career-low three sacks this season, two happened in the opener against Green Bay with a healthy Hicks. Also worth noting: Of Floyd’s 19.5 career sacks in 52 games, 7.5, or more than 38%, have come across seven battles with the Bears’ bitter rivals.
“It makes a huge difference,” outside linebackers coach Ted Monachino said this week of the effect Hicks can have on Floyd and Mack. “Because we’re winning, we’re having some winning rushes outside, and because the quarterback is able to climb the pocket and step up inside, we’re just a hair off on finishing some of those rushes.”
Monachino, one of Floyd’s staunchest backers, said the film illustrates his top two edge rushers are reaching their landmarks, but the inconsistent interior push at times mitigates that work. Regardless, fans expect the body of work from Floyd, whom the Bears traded up to select No. 9 overall in 2016, to include more pass-rush production. And after it appeared their expectations might finally even be exceeded this season, with Floyd exploding out of the gate in the opener after his best eight-game stretch as a pro to conclude last season, the conversation has reverted to what he isn’t doing enough.
Not that Monachino sees it what way.
“There’s one guy in our building that can do the job that Leonard is asked to do, and that’s Leonard Floyd,” Monachino said. “He’s playing at as high a level as I’ve ever had a ‘Sam’ play. ... I’d love for him to be able to finish some of those things at the top of the pocket that he’s had some success with more often, but right now there’s only one guy I can ask to do that job, and that’s Leonard Floyd, and he does a great job of it.”
This much is crystal clear: Floyd’s greatest work as a pass rusher has consistently come against the Packers and with Hicks on the field. Throw in the fact that Sunday marks the Bears’ biggest game of the season, and it’s reasonable to expect it’ll be Floyd’s biggest performance to date this season, if not since his gangbusters Week 1.
“He did a great job in that first game of finishing plays,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said of Floyd. “And there have been times where not only him but we have left plays out there. He’d tell you the same thing. There were opportunities. You just have to finish them.”