Ryan Bukowiecki covers the Bears for WARR; This is the latest in of our series of positional breakdowns of the Bears heading into the 2018 season, check out Ryan’s previous breakdown of the Bears’ linebackers.
A rash of injuries on the defensive side of the ball have kept the Chicago Bears somewhat on edge since their last preseason game Saturday against the Broncos.
In that game outside linebacker Leonard Floyd broke a couple bones in a couple fingers and defensive lineman Akiem Hicks was a late scratch and has been dealing with knee soreness all week in practice. Adding to the all-star defender PUP list was rookie LB Roquan Smith whose hamstring tweak has had him limited in practice this week and may not allow him to play on Saturday against the Chiefs. Given the boldface names involved and the positions they play, these injuries are a little worrisome to say the least.
There is still time to get these guys ready for the season but time is almost up and arguably these three are among the most important defensive pieces Chicago has.
Let’s get back to Hicks, who is arguably the most important player on the defense. Floyd is a pass rusher but he hasn’t played enough to be completely irreplaceable and Smith hasn’t played a down yet for the Bears. An all-pro level talent, Hicks was the only guy on the defense that could have been considered a Pro Bowler last year, his presence helps everyone else out on the defensive line by taking on double teams or by using his size and speed to get into the backfield.
The injuries to the linebackers and the general unknown status of the secondary puts even more pressure on the defensive line, an area which has talent and features one of the few positional starter battles in all of camp. Lets take a look at one of the most critical positional groups on the team.
The first thing the D-line will have to figure out is how serious the injury is to Hicks and how could it respond to it. Described as soreness in his knee, nothing further has been diagnosed for Hicks. He doesn’t need to play on Saturday, so resting him completely until Green Bay seems like the logical thought.
Hicks has been as consistent a player as there is on the roster and he has also done a great job of being available to play on Sundays. Hopefully he will be okay because the duo of him and Eddie Goldman can cause a lot of problems for teams up the middle. It is said all the time that pressure up the middle is a way to knock a quarterback of his spot and rhythm, in combining those two monsters on the inside with some of the talent the team has at defensive end and this group should be pretty good this year with health on their side.
In one of the key battles this year in camp Jonathan Bullard looked to be the favorite coming into camp but he is fending off a couple young challengers to find out who the third lineman will be in the Bears’ base packages.
First is Roy Robertson-Harris, who has been having a really good camp and preseason, racking up 3.5 sacks so far, highlighted by a great pass rush move for a sack last Saturday. Harris was an un-drafted free agent signed by the Bears in 2016 and he has continued to improve every year and even if he is not the starter, he will get plenty of time on the field as part of the rotation. Hopefully Harris can bring his great play streak into another regular season.
Another player on the line to keep an eye on is rookie Bilal Nichols out of Delaware. Nichols has also had a nice preseason and camp, he projects more as a supporting player unlike Harris and Bullard who are more established, but Nichols has had a couple sacks and flashed the size and speed that made him an intriguing prospect going into the draft.
Coming from Division I FCS will most likely mean that Nichols will need time to develop before he can be counted on consistently but he has shown more than most might have expected in being a fifth round pick from a small school. The Bears kept six defensive lineman last year after final cuts and Nichols looks in line to be on the roster, it is probably doubtful the Bears will be able to get Nichols onto the practice squad and the Bears may not want to risk it.
As of now Nichols is listed as the backup to Hicks on the depth chart, which feels like an encouraging sign moving forward.
The lines for both the offense and defense are among the most underrated parts to a football team. If a team doesn’t get enough line play then the rest of the position groups are put under immense pressure. We don’t know how the Bears defense will look this year, especially at the start of the season with the injuries they have had.
A good defensive line group will go a long way in repeating or exceeding the defense’s success last year. It will start with Hicks and work its way down but it won’t be just one player that makes the whole group play well. The rotation looks solid for the season but poor play and injuries can ruin that.
Of course if guys like Eddie Goldman, Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris can develop more, combined with Hicks elite play, then this defense might just hit another level in 2018.
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