Hicks big reason why Bears 'D' has taken major strides

The Bears knew in the off-season when they signed unrestricted free agent Akiem Hicks for $10 million over two years they were getting a player who would immediately upgrade their run defense.

The 6-foot-5, 336-pound product of the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada has done that.

Last year the Bears were tied for 22nd in rushing yards allowed, and they're 18th this year. The greater improvement has been in average gain allowed per rushing attempt, where the Bears have jumped from 26th to No. 9.

Hicks, a third-round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints in 2012, leads all Bears defensive linemen with 39 tackles and has a team-best 2 forced fumbles. That isn't surprising considering he led the Saints' D-linemen with 56 tackles in 2013 and was second in 2014 with 41.

But last year the Saints switched from a 3-4, which is ideally suited to Hicks' talents, to a 4-3, leaving him miscast. At midseason he was traded Hicks to the New England Patriots, where his production increased.

Back at home in the Bears' 3-4 Hicks has not only been a run-stuffer but a force as a pass rusher. His 2 sacks in last week's 26-6 victory over the 49ers gave him a career-best 6 for the season, third on the team and first among defensive linemen. It also earned him the NFC's defensive player of the week award.

"I've always been considered a good or great run-stopper," Hicks said. "One thing I felt like I wasn't allowed to do in some places I've been, is to work my craft in rushing the passer. They've given me the ability to do that here, and I've grown in it. I just appreciate them for allowing me that opportunity."

The Bears' defense as a whole has taken major strides, improving from 14th in total yards allowed last year to No. 7 this year and from 20th in points allowed to 16th.

Only Hicks and cornerback Tracy Porter have started all 12 games.

"He's done well," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of Hicks. "It's a credit to him, a credit to (defensive line coach) Jay (Rodgers). Akiem has kept improving throughout the season, and he's been one of the guys that have been there each and every week, playing a lot of plays for us. He's been a steady bell cow for us."

Hicks has played 695 snaps, more than twice as many as the Bears' next-most-active D-lineman, Mitch Unrein, who's played 307 snaps.

Fangio says there's room to grow for Hicks, who just recently turned 27.

"He's still got a lot of improvement to go and a lot of potential to be realized," Fangio said. "If he keeps working, I think he can get there."

Where is there? Hicks isn't sure, but he's excited about the kind of all-around player he can become in the future.

"I couldn't begin to put a ceiling on anything," he said. "But (Fangio) is definitely right; there's always room to improve, especially in my game. Some of the things that I've had to do this season, I'm doing for the first time in my career. It's exciting to know that there's still a place that I can ascend to."

• Follow Bob's Bears reports on Twitter @BobLeGere.

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