The Bears began life indefinitely without Akiem Hicks on Tuesday, sending the Pro Bowl defensive end to injured reserve with a dislocated left elbow and promoting undrafted rookie OL Alex Bars from the practice squad to the active roster.
Hicks, 29, who missed his first start in three-plus seasons with the Bears in Week 4 with a knee injury, returned two weeks ago in London but suffered the injury on only the eighth play of the loss to the Raiders when his elbow collided with Roquan Smith's helmet.
"I think when you have a player like him, keeping him involved in everything we do, just like he was going to be starting this game, he’ll be a voice on the sideline," said D-line coach Jay Rodgers of Hicks, whose 24 sacks since the start of 2016 leads the Bears. "He’ll be a voice in the class room. He’ll be a voice in everything that we do. His mentality that he’s been able to develop the last few years will still be here. It’s not like we’re losing this guy for the season and all those type of things, and he goes off and is in a different town. He’s going to be here. He’s part of us. He’s part of the Bears family, this organization."
Matt Nagy, who would only say Monday that Hicks' injury was "pretty good," has indicated, as Rodgers also alludes to, that the Bears are hopeful Hicks will return to the field before his eighth NFL season is over. The earliest Hicks could return from injured reserve would be in Week 15 against the Packers.
Kyle Long, who was placed on season-ending IR Monday, was designated as one of Chicago's two IR candidates for return last season and made it back on the field in Week 17 and for the playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Bears could get a key reinforcement for Hicks this week with fellow starting DE Bilal Nichols practicing for the first time since he broke his hand in Week 1. Nichols will have to learn to play with a cast on his hand, but with the surprising mileage he provided the 'D' as a fifth-round rookie last season and in light of the sparse DL depth behind him, the Bears would gladly welcome his presence, even if he's limited.
"Defensive line is so much about using your hands," said Rodgers, after crediting Nichols' consistency and football IQ. "You still have to protect that in some way, shape or form. I broke the same hand in the springtime — I know how it feels, what you can and can’t do, but I don’t play defensive line. It’s a little bit different. We’re obviously working through that process. He had a practice the other day. Did well with it in practice. Hit some pads, got some good movement with players. But again, we didn’t have the pads on, so you don’t know. He’s going to work through all those kinks this week and see how he is."
After performing admirably without Nichols, Hicks and starting LB Roquan Smith in the dominating Week 4 victory vs. the Vikings, the Bears' 'D' undoubtedly felt Hicks' absence in London, ceding only its third 100-yard rusher and failing to record a sack for only the second time over the past 29 games.
But Rodgers expressed confidence in the Bears' next-man-up approach and ability to weather the absence of a team leader and critical cog in their ferocious front.
"It’s all about understanding what your job is, what your role is, how to execute, how to execute under pressure and do what we do," he said. "We’re not asking anybody to go outside the framewok of the defense. We’re not asking anybody to do something extra special. We’re asking you to do your job, because you’re one of 11 guys on the defense."
Still, this is uncharted water for the ultra-durable Hicks and Chicago's defense.
Ideally, Nagy and Co. made the necessary fixes to a lagging offense so that it no longer overburdens a 'D' whose primary task is now filling the almost impossibly large void left by Hicks during the most difficult portion of their schedule.