Bears DT Akiem Hicks could help Chicago's slim playoff hopes

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Chicago Bears Pro Bowl defensive lineman Akiem Hicks has targeted a Week 15 return ever since he landed on injured reserve in early October with an elbow injury.

The wait is almost over. After sitting out eight games, Hicks can come off of injured reserve and play against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.

“One of the things I really focused on was just making sure my elbow was in the strongest place possible," Hicks said this week. "We still have some finishing up to do and there's all these dates to make gains and get a little bit better. Just working on that.”

The 29-year old defensive lineman returned to practice last week and has not suffered any known setbacks. Hicks hasn’t played a down since suffering the elbow injury in the first half of Chicago’s loss to the Oakland Raiders in London on October 6.

Hicks, was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2018 when he had 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and 55 tackles while starting all 16 games. He has one sack and six tackles in four games this season while also missing the Week 4 game vs. the Vikings with a right knee injury.

Hicks, in his eighth NFL season, has 33.5 career sacks.

“It would be huge to get him back just because, again, he’s a dominant player,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “Any offense that plays our defense when he’s in the game they have to know where he’s at. He brings attention. He brings double teams. Anytime you double-team someone in this game, there’s somebody else that has an opportunity, so the more people we can get to get double-teamed, the better coaches we are.

But, facing the Packers and running back Aaron Jones, what will Hicks be able to do on the field following the long layoff?

"Everything's going to come to light those first couple plays,” Hicks said. “There's nothing like that first moment being back or stepping on the field, that first contact. You can simulate whatever environment you want but there's nothing like it.”

The 332-pound lineman said he struggled to lift even a two-pound dumbbell with his left arm in the days after the injury.

“It was humbling,” Hicks said.

The Bears are doing whatever they can to keep close tabs on Hicks, who in lieu of live contact, has been working the bags at practice to simulate football movements.

“It’s just a matter of watching him on tape, watching him at practice, communicating, getting a feel, talking to him, seeing how he’s doing, and seeing where he’s at with the cardio stuff,” defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano said.

“He did a great job and the trainers did a great job while he was out of taking care of himself. He’s rehabbing that elbow but at the same time he was taking care of his body and staying in shape. But again, there’s nothing like football shape. So until you get the pads back on and you get out there and play, I think time will tell on that. So I think it’s just constant dialogue and communication.”

Hicks’ expected return coincides with Chicago’s most meaningful game of the year. At 7-6, the Bears are clinging to the faintest of playoff hopes. But the Bears cannot be eliminated from postseason contention if they upset the Packers at Lambeau Field.

The fact the game happens to be against the Bears’ biggest rival is an added bonus.

“Well, I'll start by saying one of the first things that I was told when I signed here was if you don't win any game this year, you beat the Packers,” Hicks said. “... I've played in other conferences where there's a rivalry between two teams. But nothing is like Green Bay-Chicago.”

Especially when both teams have something to play for.

Green Bay sits atop the NFC North at 10-3 -- one game in front of the Vikings (9-4). The Bears looked done about a month ago, but have since won three straight and four of five. For the Bears to pull off an improbable run to the playoffs, Hicks has to be the same disruptive force he was prior to the injury.

“Isn’t that beautiful … just to see the adversity and the grit and the fight that these guys had to go through, and I couldn’t help,” Hicks said. “To be in this position at this time in the season, you have to take advantage of it.”