It is far from a secret around the National Football League that if the Chicago Bears are going to continue to be a factor in the NFC playoff chase, then Mitchell Trubisky, the run game, offensive line, and offense in general are all among their their second-biggest concerns.
But it is still their defense that will dictate just how far this team can go, and right now it is under the microscope as well.
Make no mistake, the Bears D is a top-five unit, and may very well still be the best in the NFL.
But the combination of a dismal performance in London and the loss of five technique Akiem Hicks for at least the next 8 weeks has Bears brass, coaches, media, and fans everywhere wondering what kind of scars that will leave.
Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said Thursday of the loss to the Raiders, “It was good for all of us.”
Asked to expound on that thought he said, “It’s a wake-up call. It doesn’t matter where you play, when you play, those kinds of things, it’s the National Football League. We’ve got another chance, thank God.”
The Bears defense has been better in some games than others, but when you consider the last time the Bears defense laid an egg as badly as they did against Oakland was actually a year ago, also in the fifth game of the season in Miami – and it’s only happened those two times since Khalil Mack arrived – Pagano is probably right.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix pretty much echoed his coach’s sentiments from the players’ point of view.
“That loss we had to Oakland was not us. We’ve had a chip on our shoulder this entire bye week just thinking about it.,” he said. “But our mindset is still the same. That’s to be dominant on defense. That’s to create turnovers and capitalize, and get off the field on third down. That’s the emphasis this week.”
The man who will be most responsible for picking up where Hicks left off is on board, too.
According to Nick Williams, “Yeah, the word in the locker room is great.
“We’re sitting at 3-2. The division has a lot of great teams in it, but we believe in ourselves, we believe in this defense, we believe in this team as a whole,” he added. “The mood hasn’t changed: we’re still upbeat, we’re still ready to go.”
When you look around and see three first-team All-Pros in Mack, Kyle Fuller and Eddie Jackson, and a ton more talent including Eddie Goldman, Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan, Leonard Floyd, Roy Robertson Harris, and Clinton-Dix it’s hard to argue the confidence of the group is misplaced.
But what about replacing the unit’s emotional leader, Hicks?
“We’re coming together quick,” Williams said. “Replacing Akiem, like I said for the past few weeks, is a great deal. But we’ve just got to go out and step up our games individually – and we will, and put our best defense on the field.”
Hicks’ production will have to be picked up by more than just Williams, and the likely return of Bilal Nichols – whom some have suggested is the next Hicks in the making – from his broken hand is a big ingredient.
“It’s hard. He pretty much molded me into the young player I am,” Nichols said. “Best thing I can do is just continue to grow and do whatever I can to make things easier on everybody else.”
Pagano believes a lot of the answer will come from Hicks himself.
“He’s still around here,” Pagano said. “He’s our alpha in there. He’s a great, great player and he’s a great leader. He’s here. He’s coaching those guys. He’s still going to be with them that way.
“It’s next man up. You don’t want to lose anybody, but he’s our guy, he’s that guy in the defensive room, he’s our leader. But it’s an opportunity for those other guys to step up and fill that void.”
Hicks will surely be missed. But there is more than enough left on that side of the ball for this Bears team to compete at the highest level – if most of those offensive concerns can be fixed.