Bears

Bulls hold off Kings in opener

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Bulls hold off Kings in opener

Kicking off the regular season on Halloween, the Bulls (1-0) got a scare from the Sacramento Kings (0-1) Wednesday night at the United Center, but managed to pull out a 93-87 victory to start their 2012-13 NBA campaign.

The new-look squad wasnt spectacular in its opener, but the constant of stout defense was an important aspect in their success, coupled with balanced offensive play and the emergence of Joakim Noah as a legitimate scoring threat, Rip Hamiltons return to his previous form and Carlos Boozer embracing big moments down the stretch.

The outset of the game likely featured too many turnovers for either coachs taste, though both squads were effective in pushing the tempo and converting transition opportunities. When the Bulls faced Sacramentos set defense, the veteran duo of Hamilton (19 points) and Boozer (18 points, eight rebounds) carried the offensive load, with Kirk Hinrich (seven assists) setting the table via his playmaking ability and Noahs (23 points, 10 rebounds, three blocked shots, career-high five steals) typically high activity level also sparking the team.

For the Kings, fourth-year guard Tyreke Evans (21 points, eight rebounds) the former Rookie of the Year is in the same boat as Bulls reserve Taj Gibson (four blocks), a fourth-year player who hasnt yet inked a long-term contract extension, for which there is a league-imposed 11 p.m. Central time deadline started off strong, showcasing an improved outside jumper to go along with his driving ability, and received interior help from talented big man DeMarcus Cousins (14 points, seven rebounds).

The score see-sawed back and forth during the opening period, but at the conclusion of the frame, the Bulls held a 25-23 advantage.

In the second quarter, the Bulls clamped down on the defensive end and although the second unit struggled to produce points, the hosts maintained their slight edge.

Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau provided a glimpse into his rotation for the season, as Luol Deng (12 rebounds) played for approximately a quarter-and-a-half before getting a rest, while Noah was on the court for the games first 15 minutes or so.

As the games pace slowed and the contest settled into more of the grind-it-out affair that the Bulls have thrived in under Thibodeaus watch, with or without the injured Derrick Rose, it became clear that the home team would have to endure periodic offensive droughts and persevere through determined defense and a scoring-by-committee approach.

Sacramento, buoyed by points off turnovers, flirted with overtaking its hosts, but at the intermission, the Bulls clung to a 44-38 lead.

After the break, the Bulls went on a 12-2 run, fueled by Hamilton and Noah, in particular. The volatile Cousins picked up a technical foul during this stretch, but probably more infuriating to the Kings was their hosts stifling defense, as Sacramento struggled to produce offense, leading to a double-digit deficit.

But the Bulls themselves hit their own offensive lull and led by the play of starting guards Evans and diminutive floor general Isaiah Thomas, as well as instant-offense reserve scorer Marcus Thornton (15 points), the guests quickly narrowed the gap and climbed back into the game. Heading into the final stanza, the Bulls remained ahead, 69-63.

To start the fourth quarter, the Bulls suddenly found themselves in a barn-burner, as they continued to struggle to contain the potent scoring ability of Thornton and Evans. On the other end, backup point guard Nate Robinson sparked them offensively for a stretch and Carlos Boozer also began to find his rhythm.

Boozer took on the role of closer for the Bulls and either asserted himself as a scorer or used his underrated passing ability to find others for easy opportunities, while on the defensive end, Taj Gibson made his presence felt as a shot-blocker and Deng, who struggled with his shot all game, made key hustle plays and corralled big rebounds late.

But the Kings kept things close down the stretch, with Evans making it a one-possession affair with under a minute to play and after Deng split a pair of attempts from the charity stripe with 35.6 seconds left, Sacramento was hit with a five-second violation on the ensuing inbounds play following a timeout and the hosts, specifically Noah, closed things out with a parade to the foul line.

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.