Markus Wheaton

Why aren't the Bears using Tarik Cohen more?

Why aren't the Bears using Tarik Cohen more?

Last month, Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera explained why the Bears can be dangerous on offense when both Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen are on the field at the same time. 

“When they put them both in there, now you’ve got to play attention to both of them,” Rivera said. “If you treat it like it’s a nickel type of package and you put an extra DB in there, they’re going to run the ball at you. If you put a linebacker out there on them, now they’re going to isolate that linebacker on that back. I think the one one-two punch they have with those guys has worked very well for them as a football team.”

That line of thinking would, seemingly, feed into how Cohen can make an impact even if he isn’t getting handoffs or targets. The Bears like Cohen’s ability to be a decoy now that opposing defenses have figured out he’s the team’s best playmaker.

So why did Cohen only receive 13 offensive snaps on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers?

“You’re looking at one game,” coach John Fox said. “Sometimes the defense dictates who gets the ball. I think from a running standpoint it was a game where we didn’t run the ball very effectively. I think we only ran it 17 times. I believe Jordan Howard being the fifth leading rusher in the league probably commanded most of that. I think he had 15 carries. It’s a situation where we’d like to get him more touches, but it just didn’t materialize that well on that day. But I’d remind people that he’s pretty high up there in both punt returns, he’s our leading receiver with 29 catches, so it’s not like we don’t know who he is.”

Cohen was always due a decline from his early-season usage, which peaked at 62.5 percent of the Bears’ snaps in that Week 2 blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (in which Jordan Howard was given a rest as things got out of hand with a banged-up shoulder). But he was used on about one-third of the Bears’ plays against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 6, throwing a touchdown and carrying 14 times for 32 yards. 

Offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains pointed to Cohen not matching up well against the Packers in pass protection as to why he was only on the field for 21.7 percent of the Bears’ snaps, his second-lowest percentage of the year (18.4 percent vs. Carolina). Cohen is not part of the Bears’ two-minute package, for example. 

“Tarik, he’s a really good player, sometimes the defense dictates who is going to be out there,” Loggains said. 

But why are opposing defenses dictating the personnel the Bears’ offense has?

“We might not feel great about Tarik in protection vs. Clay Matthews, or there may be a certain blitz they run,” Loggains said.

The fundamental issue here goes beyond Cohen’s usage, or lack thereof, and is that the Bears don’t enough other playmakers on offense outside of their undersized fourth-round pick. With more talent in this group, Cohen receiving 13 snaps wouldn’t be as significant a topic of discussion. 

But as long as the Bears need, as Loggains said last month, “Tarik to be that guy for us, the best playmaker we have,” the coaching staff has to seek a way to get him on the field more, even if it’s merely as a decoy. 

What about the receivers?

Josh Bellamy played 40 snaps on Sunday after totaling 14 in the Bears’ previous four games, while Tre McBride — who caught three passes for 92 yards in Week 8 against the New Orleans Saints — only played seven snaps against Green Bay. 

Loggians said Bellamy’s uptick in playing time was because the Bears though they needed his speed in the offense. That doesn’t speak well to how much the coaches trusted Markus Wheaton, who was a full participant in practices Thursday and Friday leading up to the weekend but hadn’t played since Week 5 due to a groin injury (Wheaton said barely playing against Green Bay was “extremely frustrating,” but acknowledged he still needed to prove he’s healthy). 

“Sometimes statistically when you say (McBride) played the best game of his career, that may not match with what the coaches see on tape when balls aren't going your way or how you're getting separation vs. man coverage or other things,” Loggains said. “We thought Bellamy gave us an element of speed that we needed that week. He's always been a good blocker. Part of that thought process was we needed to stretch the field and he's probably our fastest wide receiver. He came up big on the long touchdown pass. That was really why we did it.”

Bellamy, though, only had two catches on seven targets, and didn’t track a pass from Trubisky with the “great urgency” needed to catch it on the Bears’ last-ditch drive in the fourth quarter, Loggains said. 

It wasn’t all disappointing for the Bears’ receivers on Sunday, though, with Dontrelle Inman impressing Loggains with how quickly he developed a chemistry with Mitchell Trubisky. 

“(He’s) a big guy that was in the right spots — a calming presence for Mitchell,” Loggains said. “I think you guys felt as the game went Mitchell’s confidence with him grew. And confidence is only born from demonstrated ability. Mitchell needed to see the that. He needed to see Dontrelle go out and be in the right spots. He did a nice job with it.” 

Where do the Bears stand at wide receiver heading into the second half of 2017?

Where do the Bears stand at wide receiver heading into the second half of 2017?

This will come as no surprise: The Bears are last in the NFL with 1,404 passing yards, and are second-to-last with 13 passing plays of 20 or more yards (only the Baltimore Ravens, with 10, have a lower total). 

Of the seven Bears players with double-digit targets, one is on injured reserve (Zach Miller, 35), one is on the Buffalo Bills (Deonte Thompson, 18) and one hasn’t been targeted since the last time the Bears played the Green Bay Packers (Josh Bellamy, 17). Two are running backs (Tarik Cohen, 39; Jordan Howard, 21), and then there’s one consistently-used receiver in that group (Kendall Wright, 34). 

So change is coming to this group of pass-catchers. And with it is a sort of budding confidence that the group hope pays off on Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. 

“It’s the most full-strength (group) that we’ve had so far,” wide receiver Tre McBride said. “And outside of Kevin (White) and Cam (Meredith) returning, this is as healthy as it’s going to get right here. So that’s good. That’s all we need. Obviously we love our boys and our teammates, but we’re confident that we can get it done with our group that’s playing right now.” 

A look at where these receivers stand heading into the second half of the season:

Dontrelle Inman

The 6-foot-3 Inman brings a size component to the Bears’ offense it hasn’t had since Meredith (6-foot-3) and White (also 6-foot-3) suffered season-ending injuries. Coaches have raved about Inman’s work ethic since arriving at Halas Hall two weeks ago — “he's the guy who is in my office at 6:30 in the morning and wanting to go through plays,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said — and he’s lined up to make his Bears debut Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. 

Inman averaged about six targets and 3 1/2 catches per game last year; those numbers will probably be lower in these final eight games of 2017 given the Bears probably won’t throw as much as the Chargers did. But if Inman quickly develops a chemistry with Mitchell Trubisky, he’ll be part of the mix to make an impact starting Sunday. 

Markus Wheaton

Wheaton was a full participant in practice on Thursday and looks set to play for the first time since he suffered a groin injury in practice in mid-October. 

“We’re trying to figure out still where exactly he is, what exactly he’s good at,” Loggains said. “We have to rely a lot on the 2015 tape when you evaluate him because he missed some time in 2016.”

Wheaton has the speed to be a deep play threat, but until he and Trubisky can link up for some big chunks of yardage, defenses may not respect what he can do. And Wheaton knows for Loggains to call for some of those deep shots, he needs to prove he can execute those plays. 

“We gotta keep attacking,” Wheaton said. “We gotta build confidence in them (coaches) upstairs to continue to attack. And that comes here, on the practice field every day, in the meeting room, watching film, we just gotta continue to grow as individuals and that’ll continue to carry over.” 

If Wheaton (or Inman, or anyone else) can execute some downfield plays, it will greatly help alleviate the pressure at the line of scrimmage faced by Howard, and in turn should lead to a decrease in negative runs for the Bears' offense. 

Tre McBride

McBride is coming off the best game of his career (three catches, 92 yards) and succeeded when he was schemed into open space via stack/bunch formations. He’s a player the Bears liked when they claimed him off waivers after cut-down day in early September but took a little while to assimilate into the offense. He and Trubisky had a good rapport against New Orleans, and McBride said he’s confident that chemistry will continue to grow going forward. 

“It’s reps — not even scripted practice reps, but real, live game reps where you got people flying at you trying to hurt you,” McBride said. “That is what’s going to bring the passing game together as a whole. A lot of it’s going to be done on the fly, and that’s just how it is, the profession that they pay us to do.” 

Kendall Wright

Wright is not only the most established receiver in this group, but he could stand to benefit the most from the addition of Inman, the return of Wheaton and the progress of McBride. It was tough for the Bears to get Wright — who is viewed primarily as a slot receiver — into games without a pair of reliable outside receivers, but if two of the Inman/Wheaton/McBride trio play well, it could lead to Wright being on the field more. That’d be good news for Trubisky, especially on third down, when Wright’s savvy ability to get open past the chains can come in handy. 

Josh Bellamy

Despite not being targeted in over a month, Bellamy plays a key role on special teams and is likely to be active on Sunday and beyond because of it. 

Tanner Gentry

Gentry may be the odd man out and wind up inactive against Green Bay assuming Inman and Wheaton are active. He’s played no fewer than 86 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps in the three games he was active in October, but only has one catch on three targets in those games. 

As for the non-receivers in the Bears' passing game:

Dion Sims

Sims has missed back-to-back practices this week with an illness, which could put his status for Sunday in jeopardy. He hasn’t been much of a factor in the passing game this year, but did catch a touchdown against Baltimore and might be in line for an uptick in targets without Miller. Sims’ potential absence, though, will be felt mostly in the run game, to the point where coach John Fox floated the possibility an offensive lineman could line up at tight end some on Sunday. 

Daniel Brown

Brown may see the biggest increase in snaps with Miller out, given he best fits the injured tight end’s pass-catching mold. The Bears liked Brown’s pass-catching ability when they added him from the Ravens last year, and he caught 16 passes for 124 yards in six games in 2016. 

Adam Shaheen

While Shaheen hasn’t lived up to the second-round expectations placed on him this year, he can expect to play more than 50 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps for the first time this year, especially if Sims is inactive Sunday. Even if Brown gets some more targets, Shaheen should too. 

Ben Braunecker

Braunecker contributed on special teams last year and should be in the mix to fill Brown’s role there after being promoted from the practice squad on Tuesday. 

Tarik Cohen

Cohen’s pass game usage declined from September (29 targets, 24 catches, 150 yards, 1 TD) to October (10 targets, four receptions, 89 yards), but the rookie said he doesn’t feel like he’s hit a wall. 

“I feel like I’m good,” Cohen said. “I’m refreshed. The bye week came at a perfect time. But even before the bye week I didn’t necessarily feel like I was getting sluggish or running into any type of wall.”

Opposing defensive coordinators quickly schemed to mute Cohen’s production after his explosive debut, but the Bears still can find ways to get the ball in his hands — like on his 70-yard reception against the Carolina Panthers. 

Jordan Howard

While Howard’s catch percentage is up from last year (58 percent in 2016, 67 percent in 2017), he’s dropped two likely touchdowns against Atlanta in Week 1 and New Orleans in Week 8. The next time one of those throws goes Howard’s way, they’ll need their best offensive player to catch the ball. 

The five (or more) most important Bears players for the second half

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USA Today

The five (or more) most important Bears players for the second half

The Bears are 3-5 halfway through the regular season, and returned to Halas Hall on Monday after recharging during their off week. If this team is going to mount a serious shot at eight wins -- or, more ambitiously, a legitimate playoff push -- it'll need this group of players to step up in the second half of the season: 

1. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky

For all the talk of the different energy Trubisky brought to the offense, and for all the (fair) points about talent issues around him, Trubisky is 38/80 for 512 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions and a rating of 66.2 through four games. The Bears were able to spend last week self-scouting and taking a bigger picture look at their rookie quarterback, and that could reveal some different ways to get Trubisky into a rhythm and help him be a more effective passer within this offense. Still, the most important thing Trubisky can do in these next eight games is not turn the ball over: It’s no coincidence the Bears are minus-43 when they turn the ball over more than two times and plus-six when they have two or fewer turnovers. 

2. [Insert a wide receiver here]

We’re not picking a specific receiver, but the Bears need at least one guy to step up from this group: Dontrelle Inman, Kendall Wright, Markus Wheaton, Tre McBride, Tanner Gentry and Josh Bellamy. Inman hasn’t been active in a month but has the length (he’s 6-foot-3) to possibly this receiving corps go three-wide more than they did in the first half of the season. It’s easier to envision Wright — who hasn’t played much but has been the Bears’ most reliable receiver — being on the field more in the slot with Inman and Tre McBride/Tanner Gentry manning the outside. McBride showed against New Orleans he can be productive, especially when offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains schemes to get him open in space. Wheaton could return from a groin injury at some point this month, and perhaps could re-discover the skills that made him an effective deep threat in 2014 and 2015 with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bears may not have a traditional go-to receiver in this group, but there could be enough players to cobble together a relatively effective unit in the final eight games. 

3. Tight ends Adam Shaheen and Daniel Brown

With Dion Sims on pace for an average pass-catching season for him (he had nine catches for 113 yards and a touchdown; his 2013-2016 average was 18 catches for 175 yards and two touchdowns), the Bears will need either or both of Shaheen and Brown to step in and fill Zach Miller’s pass-catching shoes. Brown may be more of a direct replacement — he had 16 catches for 124 yards in six games with the Bears last year — but Shaheen carries high expectations as a second-round pick and needs to be targeted more than the two times he was in the first half of the season. Miller is third on the Bears with 20 catches and 236 yards; replacing that production would go a long way toward the success of this offense in the second half. 

4. Defensive end Akiem Hicks

Hicks played at an All-Pro level in the first half, racking up seven sacks (which tied his career high set in 2016) while being a force against the run. He’s not like everyone else on a list of players that largely needs improvement — but he was the most important player on the Bears in the first half of the season, so it stands to reason he’ll keep that spot in the second half. 

5. Kicker Connor Barth

Barth has made only 64 percent of his field goal attempts, which ranks 27th among the 29 kickers who have attempted at least 10 field goals this season. Three of his misses have been from 40-49 yards, with his other miss on a 52-yard attempt. Barth is, for now, the Bears’ kicker, but he’ll have to be better for a team that likely will find itself in a number of close games in November and December.