Tarik Cohen’s improvements as a route runner showed up in a big way late in the Bears’ overtime loss to the New York Giants on Sunday.
 
With the Bears facing a fourth down they absolutely had to convert — down seven with 17 seconds left — Chase Daniel motioned Cohen from the near-side numbers into the backfield. The quarterback and running back identified a matchup that had been favorable to the offense all game, against All-Pro safety Landon Collins. Needing only three yards, Cohen sort of lured Collins into thinking he was going to run for the sticks, but quickly burst to the safety’s outside shoulder, accelerating past him.
 
The result was Daniel dropping a 23-yard completion to Cohen, resulting in a first down and setting up Cohen’s “Oompa Loompa” game-tying touchdown toss to Anthony Miller.
 
“We had a good idea of what coverage they were going to be in, and he had some success on the route setup before,” running backs coach Charles London said. “So he knew he had to be patient, he knew the move that he needed to do to beat Collins, and he kind of lulled him to sleep there and then used his speed and ran around him. It was a great throw and a great catch down the field.”
 
In the narrow scope of Sunday’s game, this was one of the biggest plays of the afternoon. In the larger scope of the Bears’ season, how Cohen set up and executed that route is a telling sign of his development within the Bears’ offense.
 
Consider how Cohen described what he did to beat Collins:
 
“Just trying to make every route look the same,” Cohen said. “A lot of the routes out of the backfield, it looks the same, so when you do that the defender will never know what’s coming.”
 
Cohen’s speed, quickness, athleticism, football I.Q. and work ethic all made him an instant success as a rookie. But what we’re seeing in Year 2 of the “Chicken Salad” or “Human Joystick” or “Big Daddy” show is how Cohen is blending all those pre-existing traits with a larger bank of experience.
 
Cohen, through three-quarters of the season, leads the Bears in targets (77), receptions (59) and receiving yards (659).
 
“I think he’s doing a really good job of understanding coverages, how teams are trying to attack him,” London said. “And each team, pretty much each week, has had kind of a different plan of how to attack him. He’s done a good job with film study understanding that, understanding what he’s got to do to get open. So I give a lot of credit to him for doing that.”
 
And that improvement has opened up more for Nagy to do with Cohen.
 
“He’s starting to really understand the whys of the routes, whereas in training camp you hear it, you don’t know all the options to different things that we do,” Nagy said. “And then also, he’s getting more and more reps to be able to see versus defenses how that play, route, concept, works. Like I say with Mitch (Trubisky), he’s building a library and we’re able to (do) some good things with him.”
 
On top of Cohen’s receiving numbers, he’s averaging 4.3 yards per carry — not a standout number, but almost a yard better than Jordan Howard’s average (3.4). And he’s returned 28 punts for an average of 12 yards per return, cementing himself as one of the league’s most versatile weapons.
 
Cohen joined Jerry Rice as the only players in NFL history to have over 150 receiving yards, 12 catches and a touchdown throw in a game on Sunday, showcasing that versatility. But Cohen was more interested in the connection he and Rice had before that, as both are alums of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (Cohen went to North Carolina A&T, Rice went to Mississippi Valley State).
 
“It means a lot to me, because Jerry Rice came from an HBCU also,” Cohen said. “I just want to keep showing people that there are players at HBCUs, so everybody should scout them more. And the players coming out of high school should also respect the HBCUs more and choose them as an option.”