Bears

Tarik Cohen and the NFL's rookie running backs had quite the Week 1

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USA TODAY

Tarik Cohen and the NFL's rookie running backs had quite the Week 1

Last year the NFL's two leading rushers, Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott and the Bears' Jordan Howard, were rookies.

That may not happen in 2017, but this year's crop of rookie running backs sure got off to a hot start.

That included Howard's backup, as Tarik Cohen made quite the debut in the Bears' 23-17 loss to the Falcons. The 5-foot-6 Cohen caught eight passes for 47 yards and a touchdown and rushed five times for 66 yards. It was quite the coming out party for Cohen and gives the Bears a solid young 1-2 punch in the backfield.

Here's how Cohen stacked up against some other rookie running backs who had stellar debuts (listed by round selected):

Leonard Fournette, Jaguars (1st round): The Texans knew the Jaguars had little to offer in the passing game, yet Fournette still ran with ease. The No. 4 pick rushed 26 times for 100 yards and a touchdown, while also catching three passes for 24 yards.

Christan McCaffrey, Panthers (1st round): Jonathan Stewart actually had a better Sunday afternoon, but McCaffrey still showed flashes. The No. 8 pick had 13 rushes for 47 yards and added five receptions fo 38 yards. He did lose a fumble but it didn't mean much in a 23-3 Panthers victory.

Dalvin Cook, Vikings (2nd round): Cook made Vikings history on Monday night, rushing for 127 yards on 22 rushes and adding three receptions. The rushing yards were the most for a Vikings running back in his debut, topping Adrian Peterson's 103 yards in 2007.

Alvin Kamara, Saints (3rd round): Kamara's numbers weren't great (seven rushes for 18 yards, 4 receptions for 20 yards) but he led the Saints in carries, rushing yards and snaps played (41). That includes Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram. The three-headed monster didn't mean much in their Monday Night Football thumping in Minnesota, but Kamara looked solid and Sean Payton clearly trusts him.

Kareem Hunt, Chiefs (3rd round): Whoa. The NFL regular season began with Hunt putting together one of the best debuts in NFL history. Hunt ran 17 times for 148 yards and a touchdown, and added five receptions for 98 yards and two scores. He lost a fumble on his first carry (after never doing so in college) but more than made up for it in perhaps the top performance of the week.

Marlon Mack, Colts (4th round): The Colts looked abysmal in their Week 1 loss to the Rams. Mack had an up-and-down afternoon, scoring on a 3-yard run but also committing a fumble that resulted in a safety. We'll throw him in here because he accounted for the Colts' only score in a 46-9 loss.

Chris Carson, Seahawks (7th round): In a backfield touting Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls (inactive) and C.J. Prosise, the rookie Carson looked the best in a loss to the Packers. he rushed six times for 39 yards, playing more snaps (26) than Prosise and Lacy combined (23). A terrible performance from Seattle's offensive line prevented Carson from doing much else.

As the Bears begin to form an identity, special teams need to catch up

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USA Today

As the Bears begin to form an identity, special teams need to catch up

If you squint, you can start to see the Bears forming an identity. The offense, at its best, will control the game with Jordan Howard and an offensive line that’s improving with cohesion over the last few weeks. The defense will stop the run, rarely blow assignments and — at least last week — force a few turnovers. 

Those can be the makings of a team that's at least competitive on a week-to-week basis. But they also leave out a critical segment of this group: Special teams. And that unit is obscuring whatever vision of an identity that may be coming into focus. 

Jeff Rodgers’ special teams unit ranks 29th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, and is below average in all five categories the advanced statistics site tracks: field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kickoff returns, punts and punt returns. 

Had the Bears’ just merely "fine," for lack of a better term, on special teams Sunday, they would’ve controlled a win over the Baltimore Ravens from start to finish. But a 96-yard kickoff return (after the Bears went up 17-3) and a 77-yard punt return (which, after a two-point conversion, tied the game in the fourth quarter) were the Ravens’ only touchdowns of the game; they otherwise managed three field goals. 

Rodgers didn’t find much fault with the way the Bears covered Bobby Rainey’s kickoff return — he would’ve been down at the 23-yard line had the officiating crew ruled that Josh Bellamy got a hand on him as he was tumbling over. But the Bears players on the field (and, it should be said, a number of Ravens) stopped after Rainey hit the turf; he got up and dashed into the end zone for a momentum-shifting score. 

“A lot of our players stopped, all their players stopped,” Rodgers said. “There were players from both teams who came on to the field from the sideline. So there’s a lot of people on that particular play who thought the play was over.”

That return touchdown could be chalked up to an officiating-aided fluke, but Michael Campanaro’s punt return score was inexcusable given the situation of the game (up eight with just under two minutes left). The Bears checked into a max protect formation, and no players were able to wriggle free and get downfield toward Campanaro (Cre’von LeBlanc, who replaced an injured Sherrick McManis, was knocked to the turf). Rodgers said O’Donnell’s booming punt wasn’t the issue — it didn’t need to be directed out of bounds, he said — and instead pointed to a lack of execution by the other 10 players on the field. And not having McManis isn’t an excuse here. 

“We expect everybody to play at the standard at which that position plays,” Rodgers said. “I don’t put that touchdown on one guy getting hurt, but you’d always like to have your best players on the field.”

In isolation, the special teams mistakes the Bears have made this year can be explained — beyond these two returns, Marcus Cooper slowing up before the end zone was baffling, yet sort of fluky. But while the Bears’ arrow is pointing up on defense and, at the least, isn’t pointing down on offense, these special teams mistakes collective form a bad narrative. 

“We take those players, we practice it, and like all mistakes, you admit them and then you fix them,” coach John Fox said, “and then hope to God you don’t do it again.”

Even in a controlled gameplan, Mitchell Trubisky's playmaking ability shines through

Even in a controlled gameplan, Mitchell Trubisky's playmaking ability shines through

While the Bears praised Mitchell Trubisky’s operation of a controlled gameplan in his second NFL start, they’re not losing sight of the special kind of athleticism and playmaking ability the rookie quarterback possesses. Two plays in particular stand out — plays that led to anywhere from a five-to-10 point swing in the game. 

Trubisky’s 18-yard third down completion to Kendall Wright in overtime seems to looks better every time you watch it on film. Trubisky was pressured by two Baltimore Ravens pass rushers, but managed to wriggle free and slide to his right, only to find linebacker C.J. Mosley waiting in front of him. The blend of athleticism and aggressiveness Trubisky displayed in firing high over the middle toward Wright — who made a specular play of his own — is one of the many reasons why the Bears are so excited about him. 

“To be able to throw that ball with both hands in the air and changing your arm angle – that’s why you draft a kid second,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “Because of things like that.”

But there was another instinctual, athletic play Trubisky made that was just as impressive, and just as important. Cody Whitehair’s snapping issues cropped up at the Bears’ 13-yard line, with the center sailing a snap over Trubisky’s head and toward the end zone. 

If Baltimore recovered that ball, it would’ve tied the game; had Trubisky simply fell on the ball, it very well could’ve led to a safety that would’ve brought the Ravens within five points about a minute after the Bears took a 17-3 lead. Instead, Trubisky picked up the ball, scrambled to his right and threw the ball away — one of six throwaways he had on Sunday. 

“(That) was a critical, critical play at that time,” Loggains said. 

This isn't to say that two plays — only one of which gained yards — are enough to say the Bears' offense is in a good place. It's still a group that necessitates a controlled gameplan, similar to the one they used with Mike Glennon. But the difference: Trubisky can make plays. 

Briefly, on Whitehair

Since we’re on the subject of another poor snap by Whitehair, here’s what Loggains had to say on that topic: 

“He’s gotten better. We still had one too many. The thing and point I want to make with Cody Whitehair is, obviously wants to talk about the snap, but you’re talking about two weeks in a row of completely dominating. We’re an outside zone team that ran 25 snaps of inside zone because of what they were playing. It changed our game plan and Cody’s a big part of that. The last two weeks we’ve been able to move those guys inside. He’s a really good football player. 

“We’re going to battle through these snap issues. We’re cutting them down. He’s more accurate. He did have the one that obviously is unacceptable and no one owns that more than Cody Whitehair does. But he is a really good football player and let’s not lose sight of the 79 snaps where he really helped the team run the football and you can’t do that without a Cody Whitehair at center.”

Loggains has a point here — if Whitehair were struggling in the run game, against the defensive looks the Ravens were showing, the Bears wouldn’t have been able to run the ball 50 times with the kind of success they had. But the poor snaps nonetheless are ugly and have to be eliminated — imagine the uproar over them if Trubisky didn’t make that play in Baltimore. The Bears' offense won't always be good enough to overcome those kind of self-inflicted mistakes. 

Loggains and coach John Fox have praised Whitehair’s attention to the problem, and as long as Hroniss Grasu is still limited with a hand injury, Whitehair will have some time to work through these issues. One final thought: Who would’ve expected, back in May, that Whitehair would have the problems with snaps, and not Trubisky?