Tarik Cohen

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

Collecting some final thoughts on if Tarik Cohen isn't getting enough snaps for the Bears

John Fox on Friday sought to clarify some comments he made earlier in the week about Tarik Cohen that seemed to follow some spurious logic. Here’s what Fox said on Wednesday when asked if he’d like to see Cohen be more involved in the offensive game plan:

“You’re looking at one game,” Fox said, referencing Cohen only playing 13 of 60 snaps against the Green Bay Packers. “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.”

There were some clear holes to poke in that line of reasoning, since the question wasn’t about Cohen’s touches, but his snap count. Cohen creates matchup problems when he’s on the field for opposing defenses, who can be caught having to double-team him (thus leaving a player uncovered, i.e. Kendall Wright) or matching up a linebacker against him (a positive for the Bears). The ball doesn’t have to be thrown Cohen’s way for his impact to be made, especially if he’s on the field at the same time as Howard. 

“They don’t know who’s getting the ball, really, and they don’t know how to defend it properly,” Howard said. “… It definitely can dictate matchups.”

There are certain scenarios in which the Bears don’t feel comfortable having Cohen on the field, like in third-and-long and two-minute drills, where Benny Cunningham’s veteran experience and pass protection skills are valued. It may be harder to create a mismatch or draw a double team with Cohen against a nickel package. It's easier to justify leaving a 5-foot-6 running back on the sidelines in those situations. 

But if the Bears need Cohen to be their best playmaker, as offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said last month, they need to find a way for him to be on the field more than a shade over one in every five plays. As Fox explained it on Friday, though, it’s more about finding the right spots for Cohen, not allowing opposing defenses to dictate when he’s on the field. 

“We have Tarik Cohen out there, we're talking about touches, not play time, we're talking about touches so if they double or triple cover him odds are the ball is not going to him, in fact we'd probably prefer it didn’t,” Fox said. “So what I meant by dictating where the ball goes, that's more related to touches than it is play time. I just want to make sure I clarify that. So it's not so much that they dictate personnel to you. Now if it's in a nickel defense they have a certain package they run that may create a bad matchup for you, that might dictate what personnel group you have out there not just as it relates to Tarik Cohen but to your offense in general. You don't want to create a bad matchup for your own team. I hope that makes sense.”

There’s another wrinkle here, though, that should be addressed: Loggains said this week that defenses rarely stick to the tendencies they show on film when Cohen is on the field. That’s not only a problem for Cohen, but it’s a problem for Mitchell Trubisky, who hasn’t always had success against defensive looks he hasn’t seen on film before. And if the Bears are trying to minimize the curveballs Trubisky sees, not having Cohen on the field for a high volume of plays would be one way to solve that. 

This is also where the Bears’ lack of offensive weapons factors in. Darren Sproles, who Cohen will inexorably be linked to, didn’t play much as a rookie — but that was on a San Diego Chargers team that had LaDanian Tomlinson, Keenan McCardell and Antonio Gates putting up big numbers. There were other options on that team; the Bears have a productive Howard and a possibly-emerging Dontrelle Inman, but not much else. 

So as long as Cohen receives only a handful of snaps on a team with a paucity of playmakers, this will continue to be a topic of discussion. Though if you’re looking more at the future of the franchise instead of the short-term payoffs, that we’re having a discussion about a fourth-round pick not being used enough is a good thing. 

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.” 

Bears need rookies to develop immediately to keep playoff hopes alive

Bears need rookies to develop immediately to keep playoff hopes alive

Nick Kwiatkoski found out something about the rookie “wall” about this time last year, his first in the NFL. It wasn’t even the games themselves, the first three preseason ones and the first two of the regular season, which Kwiatkoski missed with a severe hamstring injury. It isn’t even the grind of training camp, much of which Kwiatkoski had to sit out with the hamstring. It was all of it.

“I went right from my senior year into this point of the year and I felt drained,” Kwiatkoski said, shaking his head. “It’s such a difference from what you’re used to in college. Now it’s football-football-football, all the time. That plays into it.

“My bowl game [at West Virginia] was on a Saturday. I was back in training that Monday. I went and did that for three months – Senior Bowl, Combine, Pro Day, I was still training. OTA’s, minicamps. We got a break before the season but that didn’t feel like anything. Then you’re into the season.”

Limited workloads for ’17 draft class

Any rookie “wall” may be a relative threshold for the Bears, who may be making major changes but not yet with their rookies doing heavy loads. Only one rookie has started all eight games and none of the draft choices have played as many as 50 percent of the snaps on either offense or defense. The Bears need that to change.

The Bears and their rookies are deep into the season now, with players getting deep into their on-field preparations for the Green Bay Packers next Sunday and beginning the second half of the 2017. Over the past week-plus, a number of “resets” will have occurred, both physical and mental.

Both can be a problem, and right now the Bears’ margin for error at 3-5 is perilously thin for any coping with any problems.

“I did hit a wall,” said guard Josh Sitton, recalling his 2008 rookie season as a Packer. “I was ready to get the [heck] outta there. I remember it. My O-line coach actually called me in his office and said, ‘You look dead.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I feel like it.’”

The rookies have been practicing at an NFL level with veterans since the start of training camp at the end of July. But only safety Eddie Jackson had won his starting job by opening day; Jackson has started every game and played unofficially 99.6 percent of the opposing snaps.

Quarterback Mitch Trubisky replaced Mike Glennon four games ago, and has played 233 snaps. Tight end Adam Shaheen also has started four games but played barely 20 percent of the Bears’ snaps. With Zach Miller’s season-ending knee injury, a major void opens, with Shaheen now needed to play up to the level of a second-round draft choice, which he hasn’t.

The Case of Cohen

Running back Tarik Cohen became aware of the “wall” over the break, “going back home and seeing [alma mater North Carolina A&T’s] schedule and seeing they have two games left, possibility of three games left, and we [the Bears] have eight. So that's the only thing that really caught me off guard.”

Cohen has been in all eight games but started only one (Tampa Bay) and played 38 percent of the offensive snaps. Cohen, however, has played 49 snaps on special teams as the Bears’ primary kick and punt returner, particularly with Deonte Thompson released and Benny Cunningham missing time with a sprained ankle.

The novelty of Cohen has more than worn off, more like possibly worn “down” as in Cohen touches producing diminishing returns as the rookie season of the undersized running back hits the midpoint. Injuries have taken Cunningham (5-10, 217 pounds) out of the rotation to the point where Cohen has been pressed into a role for which he isn’t really designed, and the Bears now very much need Cunningham. Very much.

Cohen had double-digit touches (handoffs plus targets) in five of the Bears’ first six games, too much of an NFL workload for a player measuring 5-6 and 185 pounds and in his first NFL season after a small-college career. Viewed using the Darren Sproles template for diminutive backs: Sproles had no more than four offensive touches in a game until deep into his third season, by which time he’d developed more physically even with a second season spent on IR.

Like Sproles, Cohen is handling kick returns but is also carrying the football and working as a receiver. Cohen played 18 offensive snaps against New Orleans, plus nine on special teams, compared to 3 snaps for Cunningham, none on special teams.

Health is an obvious factor. But while it has been one for Cunningham, the risk now is that it will become one for an over-used Cohen. The gold standard for undersized backs is perhaps Warrick Dunn, who burst on the NFL with huge usage and production for Tampa Bay in ’97. But Dunn was out of Florida State at a time when the ‘Noles were perennially part of the national-championship discussion, a different exposure than Cohen’s, or Sproles’ for that matter.

The off-week (not the “bye” – a bye is what happens when you advance a round in a tournament or playoffs without a scheduled match) is a time for self-scouting; best guess is that Cohen’s usage will come up.

“I feel like I’m good. I’m refreshed,” Cohen said. “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.

“I feel like it’s been going well. I don’t feel like I’ve been overworked or had an overload put on me. I feel like I’m talking everything they want me to do in the playbook and really running with it in stride because it’s not necessarily a lot in one area, it’s just bits and pieces in a lot of areas, so I feel like I’m able to handle that.”