One week after recording a sack and interception in a loss to the Lions, Nichols recorded his fourth sack of the season in Sunday's win over the Texans, a career high. Drafted in the fifth round as a defensive end, Nichols has made a strong impression filling the void left after nose tackle Eddie Goldman opted out of the season due to COVID-19.
"He's really coming on strong right now," said coach Matt Nagy, "and he's learning from guys like Akiem Hicks and these guys on the defensive line. Bilal is very detail-oriented. This year he's become opportunistic."
Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers believes that the third-year defensive lineman's opportunism comes from his consistent effort and patience.
"Some of those plays don't just happen right away," said Rodgers. "The continued pursuit to be a better player on an everyday basis is starting to pay dividends for him. He continues to improve as the games go by, from his rookie year to his second year to his third year. Those are the kinds of things you like seeing in a young player."
After beefing up to 313 pounds in the offseason, Nichols' game has grown to resemble his teammate Hicks'. Rodgers believes that Hicks has been a crucial mentor for Nichols over the past three seasons.
"I think any time you're coming in as a rookie," said Rodgers, "you're always looking for someone to look up to. Akiem is a Pro Bowl-type player. Akiem has really taken to Bilal over the last few years and being able to help him find his own groove now."
Nichols was able to earn playing time at defensive end as a rookie. However, his second season was marred by a hand injury that plagued him for most of the season. Since moving inside, Nichols has used his quickness to become a disruptive force.
Nichols has had a productive season for an interior defensive lineman. He has recorded 32 combined tackles, nine quarterback hits and seven tackles-for-loss. His fourth-quarter interception off Detroit Lions' quarterback Matthew Stafford marked the first of his career.
"He's making plays when he has to," said Nagy, "and he's doing a good job of creating pressure in the pass game and then doing whatever he needs to do in the run game. So his arrow is definitely up right now. I love his motor, I love his care for the game, his passion, and he's helping us out big time."
On a defense dominated by veterans, Nichols' youthful edge has stood out. Rodgers believes that Nichols' professional approach has served him well.
"Bilal does an extremely good job of studying," said Rodgers. "He studies his matchup. He studies the tips and tendencies. He does a lot of behind the scenes work prior to playing in the game and then works on those things in practice."
The hard work has continued to pay off as Nichols has become someone that Rodgers can rely on in crucial situations.
"When you get into a game situation," said Rodgers, "he's ready to perform because he's already played the game in his mind and in practice. Then when your opportunity comes to make a play, you've got to make it. He's done that a bunch of times this year."
See the best 30 photos–as selected by Bears photographers–from Sunday's Week 14 win over the Texans at Soldier Field.