When we think of great teammates in the NFL, we’re often drawn to the offensive side of the ball and to the great quarterback-receiver tandems that we’ve seen through the years; Joe Montana to Jerry Rice, Peyton Manning to Marvin Harrison, and Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski, just to name a few.
But here in Chicago, we’ve never had any type of offensive euphoria that would lead to cheering for a dynamic duo like this, as our best tandems have all been on the defensive side of things. Gary Fencik and Doug Plank, Richard Dent and Dan Hampton, Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher, and more recently, Akiem Hicks and Khalil Mack.
Hicks and Mack have only been teammates for two and a half years, but their games complement each other as the mammoth 350-pound Hicks can dominate a game from between the tackles, and the athletic and powerful Mack can terrorize an offense off the edges.
Hicks has played stellar football since coming over as a free agent before the 2016 season, but he really only started to gain some national recognition after the Bears traded for Mack in 2018. That was the first, and so far the only time, Hicks has made a Pro Bowl team, but few interior defensive linemen can anchor against the run and rush the passer like Hicks can.
Mack has flashed elite talent since being a first-round pick for the Oakland Raiders in 2014, and he made the Pro Bowl for five straight years (2015-2019) while being named first team All-Pro in 2015, 2016, and his first year as a Bear, 2018.
During that magical 2018 season, Hicks and Mack combined for 102 tackles, 20 sacks, 20 tackles for loss, 34 quarterback hits, nine forced fumbles, two fumbles recoveries, nine passes defended, and an interception returned for a touchdown. Pro Football Reference (PFR) also gave them a combined 40 quarterback hurries.
Last year injures sapped most of Hicks’ season, but this year he and Mack are on pace to have another productive season. Add in the fact that they are doing it on a defense that is constantly playing with one hand tied behind their backs — thanks to an inconsistent offense — and their numbers look even more impressive.
With Hicks only playing in five 2019 games, teams were able to send extra attention at Mack and his numbers suffered. He was still a dominant force off the edge for the Bears, but his 8.5 sacks were the lowest total since his rookie season. It became almost comical how often teams doubled, tripled, chipped, and slid protection his way.
With Hicks back to his usual self this year, he and Mack are back to stuffing the stat sheets each week.
This season Hicks has 35 tackles, 3.5 sacks, seven tackles for loss, 13 quarterback hits, a fumble recovery, and a pass defended.
Mack has racked up 33 tackles, 6.5 sacks. eight tackles for loss, nine QB hits, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and a pass defended.
To add to the duo’s numbers, Pro Football Reference has each down for eight quarterback hurries this season so far.
This was supposed to be the season where the Bears offense gave the team enough to allow them to get back to their 2018 aggressiveness, but through nine games that hasn’t materialized. The defense is still a top 10 DVOA unit, but until the team plays complementary football and each phase can carry its own weight, we may never get the true impact from Hick and Mack.
The Bears are squandering the prime years from not only these two outstanding players, but from an outstanding defensive unit as well.
The soon-to-be 31-year-old Hicks has played in 82% of the Bears defensive snaps this year, while the 29-year-old Mack has been in on 86%. These two are giving their all to the team and helping set the tone early each week, but asking a defense in this day and age to carry a team is impossible.