Bears

How Mitch Trubisky can re-set the Bears’ running game

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USA TODAY

How Mitch Trubisky can re-set the Bears’ running game

For the Bears’ offense to be successful, it has to consistently and effectively run the ball. The Green Bay Packers, and every other team in the league knows that and (except, oddly, the Pittsburgh Steelers) schemed against that strength. 

“It’s a copycat league,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “When they see you’re efficient in one area, they’re going to do things to take that away.”

So two in every three times Jordan Howard carried the ball last week at Lambeau Field, he did so facing eight or more Packers in the box, according to NFL’s Next Gen stats. Only two running backs have faced a higher percentage of loaded boxes in a game this year: Tennessee’s Derrick Henry (71.43 percent, Week 2) and Carolina’s Mike Tolbert (72.73 percent, Week 3). 

Henry isn’t necessarily a pure short-yardage/goal line back, but at 247 pounds and splitting carries with DeMarco Murray, he’s built to grind out necessary yardage. And Tolbert, as a 5-foot-9, 243 pound bowling ball, has made a career out of snagging touchdowns from short-and-goal situations. 

Neither player is a feature running back in the way Howard is. But as long as Mike Glennon was quarterback, the secret was out: Load the box, stop Howard and that’ll stop the Bears’ offense. 

The good news for Howard: Mitchell Trubisky’s arm strength and mobility could alleviate some of that pressure at the line of scrimmage. 

The Bears won’t put a lot on Trubisky, at least not yet, in terms of making run checks — an area of Glennon’s game that Loggains pointed out was a strength — but his own running ability will open up more for the offense. 

“The threat of the other things—the zone-reads and the nakeds and the boots and the sprint-outs and all those other things definitely can help and affect the run game in a different way,” Loggains said. 

Trubisky’s arm strength, too, could force defenses to back off stacking the box if he shows he can complete downfield throws to guys like Markus Wheaton or Deonte Thompson (it’s also incumbent on those receivers to catch the ball when given the opportunity). Opposing defensive backs will have to deal with the threat of having to cover receivers for longer if Trubisky is rolling out or making something happen on a broken down play, too. Specifically: Cohen's quickness could result in some big gains on broken plays. 

"You have to always be available for him because you never know what he’s going to do," Cohen said. "He’s very mobile. Just keeping the play alive is something that’s he’s going to do and we’ve got to be ready for it."

Also helping for the run game: The Bears’ offensive line is in the midst of its first full week of practice together (Charles Leno, Josh Sitton, Cody Whitehair, Kyle Long, Bobby Massie) in 2017. 

“It’s just great cohesion and stuff like that because the more games they play together, they better they work off each other,” Howard said. 

The Minnesota Vikings have held opposing ball-carriers to 3.1 yards per rush, the third-lowest average in the NFL, and this defense ranks 8th in rushing DVOA. So while the thought is Howard and Cohen could help ease things for Trubisky, it can work the other way, with the first-time starter giving the running backs some breathing room against a top-tier run defense. 

How Tarik Cohen is thriving as the Bears continue to put more on his plate

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USA Today

How Tarik Cohen is thriving as the Bears continue to put more on his plate

Mitchell Trubisky shook his head and grinned when he fielded yet another question this week about the touchdown pass Tarik Cohen threw against the Baltimore Ravens.

“Dang, you guys can’t get enough of this,” Trubisky said. “I talked about it after the game. Dowell (Loggains) was saying it was the best pass of the game. I’m like, ‘All right, geez, let him play quarterback.

“… He threw a dime ball. I love how he was fading away on it and celebrating on the 50-yard line. Zach (Miller) made a great catch. So A-plus; really impressive spiral, especially with the gloves on. Can’t count any of that out. Tarik’s a special player and it was an awesome throw.”

The point here is less about Cohen’s throw and more about the Bears finding yet another way for the rookie running back to make an impact. So far this year, Cohen has rushed 50 times, caught 26 passes, returned 14 punts and now thrown that historic touchdown. He’s been asked to block in pass protection more frequently, allowing him to be on the field more. And he’s worked with wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni and Kendall Wright (who Cohen referred to as another receiver coach for him) to expand his route tree, leading him to be the most-targeted player (33 targets) on the Bears through six weeks. 

That may seem like a lot to put on the plate of a fourth-round draft pick from an FCS school, but it hasn’t been too much for Cohen. 

“We need Tarik to be that guy for us — the best playmaker we have,” Loggains said. “There’s no secret there. And he’s a guy who we’ll continue to use, and people are aware of him. So how creative can we get with him? How many different things can we do with him? 

“Like, we’re stretching him. Mentally, he’s stretched to the max playing all these positions — motioning out to wide receiver, playing running back and doing more in the backfield with more carries. So we have to keep stretching him and keep using him in the offense.”

Opposing defenses have keyed on Cohen since his explosive debut Week 1 against the Atlanta Falcons, scheming to muffle his playmaking ability. But he still managed to nearly have a walk-off 73-yard run against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 3, and then in Week 6, with defenses figuring they could crash down on him on sweep plays to the edge, he (literally) threw another wrinkle into how to gameplan against him. The next time the Bears run a toss sweep to Cohen, opposing safeties will have to think twice about bolting toward the line of scrimmage to stop him. 

Every time Cohen seems to hit a rookie wall, he and the Bears find a way to knock it down. The discussion a week ago about Cohen was that he was dancing too much and not cutting upfield quick enough; this week, it’s all about his perfect quarterback rating. 

“Our coaches do a good job of continuing to put him in places so he can be successful,” fellow running back Benny Cunningham said. “But ultimately I feel like he has such a genuine love of the game, I don’t see that happening (hitting the wall). Since the day he’s been here, from Day 1 to today, I’ve seen no drop-off in his desire to be successful and to help this offense.”

The Bears have known this about Cohen's mentality since they scouted and drafted him back in the spring, and his potential only blossomed after getting him into Halas Hall in May — “Early on, we knew Tarik was going to be pretty special,” coach John Fox said. But Cohen wouldn’t be able to reach that potential without the ability to handle the responsibilities of all the different tasks the Bears have asked of him so far. 

Cohen’s ability to do so many different things makes him an important player for this team, and his ability to do them with an exciting, playmaking flair has made him a fan favorite since training camp. So what’s next for the 5-foot-6 rookie?

“I think we’ve got something — I’ll punt the ball this week,” Cohen joked. “Naw, I’m playin’. I can’t put the ball for nothing, I don’t think. It’ll probably go like 20 yards.”

The Bears defense is trending up, and could get Nick Kwiatkoski back as soon as this weekend

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USA Today

The Bears defense is trending up, and could get Nick Kwiatkoski back as soon as this weekend

Nick Kwiatkoski was a full participant in Bears practice on Friday, marking the first time the second-year linebacker has done that since he suffered a pec injury Sept. 17 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Officially listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers, Kwiatkoski sounded confident he could make his return five weeks after suffering that painful injury. 

“It’s not really my decision,” Kwiatkoski said. “I’m preparing like I am, so we’ll see. … “In my head I am (playing). But we’ll see.”

The Bears’ defense, despite placing three key players — linebackers Willie Young and Jerrell Freeman and safety Quintin Demps — on injured reserve, has been solid at worst so far this year. Pro Football Focus has Vic Fangio’s group as the third-best defense in the NFL through Week 6, behind only the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars. 

While Christian Jones played some quality snaps next to Danny Trevathan (and John Timu — he struggled after Timu’s injury against Minnesota), Kwiatkoski represents an upgrade at inside linebacker. The Bears liked what Kwiatkoski did last year in place of an injured Trevathan, and were confident they wouldn’t miss a beat with him filling in after Freeman’s Week 1 injury. 

“He’s a smart guy who has been willing to work,” coach John Fox said. “And I’ve seen that improvement from last year to this year. And anytime you get whacked or injured or taken out for some reason, you’ve got to kind of regain that again. It’s like a do-over. So he has had a good week.”

Kwiatkoski stayed sharp by going through meetings and film study as if he were playing while that pec injury — which he said felt like a “bad pulled muscle” — kept him sidelined for practices and games. If Kwiatkoski indeed is active and/or starting Sunday against Carolina, the hope is he can step in and pick up where he left off in Week 2. 

“I have all the confidence that he'll do fine,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said prior to Kwiatkoski’s injury. And that confidence, in all likelihood, still exists.