One of the more noteworthy developments from the Bears’ blowout win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was Tarik Cohen’s heavy usage (18 touches on 29 snaps) compared to that of Jordan Howard (11 touches on 33 snaps). While Howard played more than Cohen, he played significantly less than he had in the Bears’ previous three games, in which he played about two-thirds of the offensive snaps with 53 carries and 11 targets.
So with the Bears returning from their off week on Monday to Halas Hall, it brought about a question: Is this what Matt Nagy’s offense will look like the rest of the season?
The answer isn’t a simple “yes” or “no.”
“If we want to put him in the game and use him for a certain advantage, we’ll do that and that could be first, second or third down. There’s other times where it doesn’t fit that way,” Nagy said. “It just so happened this past game that Tarik got more plays in regards to getting the ball to him and he was productive, but that has nothing to do with what Jordan Howard is doing. Jordan Howard is a big part of this offense and I think that for us to continue to keep trying to grow, everybody in this offense has a role.
“This is not going to be an offense where it’s just one person and it goes through one person. I don’t necessarily believe in that.”
Since taking over as the Bears’ starting running back in Week 4 of 2016 — a stretch of 33 games — Howard has averaged 17.6 carries and 77.9 yards per game with 16 touchdowns. He’s the only running back in franchise history to rush for over 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons to begin his career, something Walter Payton or Gale Sayers or Matt Forte didn’t accomplish.
And Howard answered seemingly the biggest question about his game through the first four weeks of 2018, not dropping a pass while catching 10 of his 12 targets for 78 yards (he previously dropped 14 of 77 targets from 2016-2017, per Pro Football Focus).
But Nagy is more willing than his predecessors to use Cohen as a pure running back, thus cutting into Howard’s playing time. Of Cohen’s 107 offensive snaps in 2018, 72 have been as a running back (67 percent); in 2017, 189 of his 360 snaps (53 percent) were as a running back, according to Pro Football Focus. Howard and Cohen have been on the field at the same time for 23 snaps through four games.
That one-third of Cohen’s snaps have come not as a traditional running back is a showcase of his versatility (97 percent of Howard’s snaps in 2018 have been as a running back). The ability to motion from out wide to next to Mitch Trubisky, or vice versa, allows Nagy to dictate favorable matchups in a way he can’t with Howard.
And so, Howard’s usage declined significantly in Week 4. That the Bears had their best offensive game not only of the year, but in recent memory, shouldn’t be lost here.
Howard did not speak to the media after Sunday’s game, a decision that lends itself to speculation that he wasn’t happy with his lack of usage.
“I wasn’t frustrated, I was happy,” Howard said Monday. "We won. You see how much we won by. So there’s not really nothing to complain about.”
Cohen said he doesn’t feel like he needs to talk to Howard — with whom he’s close — and explained that the Bears’ running back room understands their usage will be dictated more on matchups than anything else.
“We just go how the game goes,” Cohen said. “The majority of the games he gets more (of a) workload than I do. He understands that some games are different. We felt like their secondary was banged up so that’s how we were going to attack them.”
The Bears may eventually turn back to Howard as a traditional “bell cow” running back if they get into a cold, windy, rainy/snowy game at Soldier Field in December. But it’s not like they’re going to stop using him right now, either — after all, he was wide open for what would’ve been a touchdown on Trubisky’s touchdown toss to Allen Robinson against the Buccaneers.
Howard will continue to get the ball going forward. How much compared to Cohen will vary by opponent, and that’s a change for Howard, who previously could count on 20-plus carries with regularity, regardless of who the Bears were playing. But a more important change for Howard would be playing in a consistently-effective offense, even if that means carrying the ball less than he’s used to.
“Jordan understands what we’re trying to do as a team,” Nagy said. “And he also understands, and we’ve talked, that he has a major part of this offense. He has a big-time role. But if it’s an advantage to us to go a different direction for that game or for that play or that series, we’re going to do that. As long as our guys understand that, we’ll be in good shape.
“And Jordan is good with that. He understands it. And again it’s just one of those games where he wasn’t a featured guy. But collectively as a team – forget the offense – the team played well. That’s what’s most important for all of us.”