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In Week 1 of the 2015 season, then-fifth-round rookie RB Jordan Howard was the Bears’ only active non-QB not to play a snap in the 23-14 loss to the Houston Texans. He’d go on to rush for a franchise-rookie record 1,313 yards over his final 15 games.
In Week 1 this season, fourth-round rookie DL Bilal Nichols was a healthy scratch. He’s gone on to become the Bears’ most impactful defender on a per-snap basis over the team’s past five games.
The Delaware product is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss (3) and fumble recoveries (1), despite playing only 99 snaps on defense, barely more than one-quarter of the unit’s total.
Nichols might have been the Bears’ best defender, period, in the loss to the Patriots on Sunday, when he delivered one of only three hits on Tom Brady, forced and recovered a Sony Michel fumble and tallied four tackles, two of which stopped Michel for no gain.
“Mainly in experience,” Nichols said Sunday, when asked where he’s made the biggest strides in his five games. “Getting reps, increasing my rep count is beneficial for me. I feel like that is one of the biggest things for rookies — just gaining experience. Every day I’m working hard on increasing my ability and working on my technique and things like that.”
Nichols considers his hallmark to be his speed and quickness, and we’re guessing Brady might agree. Much like Nichols did in Week 4, when he timed the snap count and blew by Tampa Bay’s top blocker, Ali Marpet, for a tackle for loss, the rookie blew by the right shoulder of Patriots C David Andrews on Sunday untouched to flatten Brady, who barely avoided the sack.
The Patriots would score one play later, but Nichols again took matters into his own hands late in the first quarter. In a three-play sequence, Nichols stopped Michel twice at the line, the second resulting in his first career takeaway. And Nichols made both those stops using speed and quickness, but more so his versatility and strength, which we highlighted in reviewing Nichols’ tape prior during the bye week.
After aligning in a zero-technique prior to his hit on Brady, Nichols’ penetration late in the first quarter came from the four-technique, where he fired off the ball and kept lengthy Patriots LT Trent Brown from getting into his body before disengaging and dropping Michel.
“I was placed in a one-on-one situation,” Nichols recalled. “I was able to beat my man and make a play. You got to be careful with guys like that — real shifty — so I just tried to make a safe tackle. But at the same time, we always preach getting the ball out, so I just wanted to make sure I wrapped him up and, at the same time, I was going for the ball, too. And I actually didn’t realize it came out until I rolled over and seen it. Just picked it up.”
The Bears clearly are realizing more and more what they have in Nichols, and subsequently his snap count has picked up. Earning a season-high in snaps (34) and snap percentage (53.1) vs. the Patriots, Nichols only logged four fewer snaps than starting base DRE Jonathan Bullard (21) and Roy Robertson-Harris (17) combined.
“It definitely gives me a [confidence] boost,” Nichols said of his latest strong performance. “I work hard every day in practice. My vets, like Akiem [Hicks] and Eddie [Goldman], they hold me to that standard. Just to see the hard work I’m putting in, [and] just giving me opportunities to make plays, [it] makes me feel great.”
At this rate, with the Bears struggling as a team defense over the past two games, Nichols might have to hold Hicks, Goldman, Khalil Mack and others to a higher standard. We’re obviously kidding, but the speed with which Nichols is developing is no joke — and it’s becoming increasingly evident that it’s not merely the byproduct of lining up alongside so many other front-seven talents.