Sunday marks Bilal Nichols' second visit to Lambeau Field as a member of the Bears but first opportunity to play there, much less as the starting right defensive end.
Nichols was a healthy scratch when the Bears and Packers clashed in last year's season-opening and heart-breaking 24-23 loss, still a complete unknown as a fifth-round rookie from FCS Delaware.
"I’m real anxious. I didn’t get a chance to play at Lambeau [last year]. I can’t wait," Nichols told Bears Insider this week.
After a broken hand in Week 2 this season helped stymie Nichols' lofty Year 2 goal to ascend from a rookie starter on the NFL's best defense to a Pro Bowler, like so many of his Bears teammates, he's playing his best football during the team's better-late-than-never surge, including three consecutive victories to extend their playoff livelihood.
"The last three games, he’s really played well," D-line coach Jay Rodgers said, first crediting his youngest pupil's work against the run. "Hasn’t had as much production in the pass game, but he’s getting more pressures than he is sack production. It’s trending upward. I thought he made a couple really good plays last week."
Perhaps the best came on the first play following Mitch Trubisky's end-zone interception, which halted the Bears' promising first possession. Backed up at their own 1, Dallas fed Ezekiel Elliott on an inside run, but Nichols used his length and strength to jolt Cowboys backup LG Xavier Sua'Filo, dropping one of the NFL's toughest runners in his tracks for a short gain.
"Pretty solid game. Really starting to get back to myself," Nichols told Bears Insider this week, "having great strike power, and now I feel like I'm really starting to get it back."
Indeed, while most of the attention this week has rightly been on what the overall D-line unit is getting back — game-wrecking Pro Bowler Akiem Hicks, set to return from an eight-week stint on IR with a dislocated left elbow — Nichols is beginning to provide the bright flashes that took so many by surprise a year ago. While he continues the quest for his first sack, Nichols notched his first pass breakup of the season and only his second QB hit over the past two games, respectively.
He's also been a key cog for a run 'D' that somehow managed to improve from fourth to third overall in the NFL during Hicks' absence, a span over which Chicago also lost defensive leader Danny Trevathan in Week 10 and running mate Roquan Smith early last week.
"That's adversity," he said. "You got to fight. Life isn’t fair all the time. You got to make things happen."
Speaking of unfair, Nichols took the brunt of a combination block by the best C-RG tandem in the NFL, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin, last Thursday, leading to Elliott's longest run of the season (31 yards). Yet only two plays later, his quick penetration prevented All Pro LT Tyron Smith from executing a reach block, and Nichols and Eddie Goldman converged for a tackle after only two yards. Later on, in the second half with the Bears up big but needing to thwart Dallas' comeback bid, Nichols got his hand up to swat down a Dak Prescott attempt to Jason Witten on third down.
"At the end of the day you just got to keep battling. A football match ain’t nothing but a fight, and you’re going to take some hits, you’re going to give some hits. It’s just about how you bounce back," he said.
And with Hicks back to absorb more of those combo blocks, Nichols is well positioned to finish his second season on a high note. After notching a half-sack of Aaron Rodgers in the Bears' division-clinching victory at Soldier Field, how sweet would it be to drop him on the frozen tundra by defeating outstanding Packers rookie Elgton Jenkins, who's yet to surrender a sack?
"It’s funny because quickly you start to realize how deep it is and you start to develop that hatred," Nichols said of his increasing knowledge regarding the NFL's oldest rivalry. "You start to feel it early. So I feel like I’m getting there. I’m close."
— Arthur Arkush