Bears

Akiem Hicks explains what makes Tarik Cohen such an explosive playmaker

Akiem Hicks explains what makes Tarik Cohen such an explosive playmaker

Midway through the fourth quarter on Sunday, Tarik Cohen caught a swing pass in open space with just one defender — Atlanta Falcons rookie linebacker Riley Duke — to beat. 

Watching from the sideline, defensive end Akiem Hicks knew what was coming, and it wasn’t going to show up on Duke’s season highlight reel. Duke lunged to try to tackle the 5-foot-6, 181 pound running back, but Cohen deftly shed the effort and accelerated forward. It was something Hicks saw Cohen do plenty in practice over the last few weeks, so he had some sympathy for Duke in that situation. 

“His mom’s watching too,” Hicks laughed. “I felt bad for him. I knew he was going to miss.”

The Bears kept their plan for Cohen out of the public eye in August, not targeting him during preseason games and only giving him one carry in their Week 3 dress rehearsal against the Tennessee Titans. But behind the scenes, Hicks and the Bears defense saw the potential Cohen had to be unleashed as a playmaker. What he did in his NFL debut, then, was no surprise. 

“I’ve seen it a bunch,” Hicks said. “I’ve seen it one too many times in training camp. I can only imagine that he’s going to be a special player in this league.” 

That shiftiness and quickness had a greater impact than landing Cohen on a highlight reel or gaining a few extra yards, though: They also set up Cohen’s two most spectacular plays on Sunday.

On Cohen’s 46-yard cut-back run, he said he knew the Falcons’ defense had over-pursued him on sweep play earlier in the game. So when the Bears ran the play again, Cohen saw the Falcons sell out to the boundary to stop him — which he knew left the field side clear. So Cohen stopped, cut back and dashed across the field in a play reminiscent of a Dante Hall punt return, gouging the Falcons’ defense and setting up a game-tying touchdown just before halftime. 

And when Cohen caught a fourth quarter pass from Mike Glennon in the red zone with one defender to beat — cornerback Desmond Trufant — all those spins and jukes from earlier in the game paid off in a different way. Cohen, instead of making one of those moves, lowered his shoulder into Trufant and bowled through him to get in the end zone. 

“The beautiful thing is Trufant couldn’t really get up on him because he was afraid that Tarik was going to make a move,” Hicks said. “So if you get a guy scared of your first move — whether it’s in pass rush or blocking as an offensive lineman or any position — when you get a guy scared of your first move, it opens up a lot more. And that’s why he was able to run him over.”

That’s the kind of stuff Cohen did to the Bears defense in August — and it’s the kind of stuff that’s now a problem for the rest of the league. 

“You can hear the chatter, you know what I mean, going through training camp where guys get matched up on him are saying, ‘Oh man, here we go,’” Hicks said. “And that’s a great feeling, because you know he’s not torturing us any more. He’s torturing other defenses.”

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside Linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

With Josh Sitton on his way out, what’s next for the Bears’ offensive line?

The first major move of Ryan Pace’s 2018 offseason hit on Tuesday, as NFL Network reported the Bears will not exercise Josh Sitton’s $8 million option for 2018. 

The move accomplishes two things for the Bears: 1) It frees up about $8 million in cap space and 2) Removes a veteran from the offensive line and creates a hole to fill, presumably by a younger free agent or draft pick. 

The 31-year-old Sitton signed a three-year deal with the Bears after Green Bay cut him just before the 2016 season, and was a Pro Bowler his first year in Chicago. Sitton played 26 of 32 games in two years with the Bears, but him being on the wrong side of 30 was likely the biggest factor here. If the Bears saw his skills eroding, releasing him now and netting the cap savings while going younger at the position does make sense. 

“Going younger” doesn’t guarantee the Bears will draft Notre Dame brawler Quenton Nelson, though that did become a greater possibility with Tuesday’s move. Nelson might be one of the two or three best offensive players in this year’s draft, and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand knows him well from the four years they spent together at Notre Dame. 

There’s a natural fit there, of course, but a few reasons to slow the Nelson-to-Chicago hype train: Would he even make it to No. 8? Or if he’s there, is taking a guard that high worth it when the Bears have needs at wide receiver, outside linebacker and cornerback? Still, the thought of Nelson — who absolutely dominated at Notre Dame — pairing with Hiestand again is tantalizing, and Nelson very well could step into any team’s starting lineup and be an immediate Pro Bowler as a rookie. 

If the Bears go younger in free agency, Matt Nagy knows 26-year-old guard Zach Fulton (No. 25 in Bleacher Report’s guard rankings) well from their time in Kansas City. Fulton — a Homewood-Flossmoor alum — has the flexibility to play both guard positions and center, which could open the door for Cody Whitehair to be moved to left guard, the position he was initially drafted to play (though the Bears do value him highly as a center, and keeping him at one position would benefit him as opposed to moving him around the line again). There are some other guys out there — like Tennessee’s Josh Kline or New York’s Justin Pugh — that could wind up costing more than Fulton in free agency. 

Or the Bears could look draft an offensive lineman after the first round, perhaps like Ohio State’s Billy Price, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn or UTEP’s Will Hernandez. How the Bears evaluate guards at the NFL Combine next week will play an important role in how they go about replacing Sitton. 

The trickle-down effect of releasing Sitton will impact more than the offensive line, too. Freeing up his $8 million in cap space -- which wasn't a guarantee, unlike cutting Jerrell Freeman and, at some point, Mike Glennon -- could go toward paying Kyle Fuller, or another top cornerback, or a top wide receiver, or some combination of players at those positions (as well as outside linebacker). The Bears were already in a healthy place cap-wise; that just got healthier on Tuesday.