Bears

Lovie Smith rebuilding Bucs using old Bears parts

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Lovie Smith rebuilding Bucs using old Bears parts

About this time 20 years ago, former Bears personnel chief Bill Tobin was general manager of “Bears South,” turning around the Indianapolis Colts in no small part using players who followed him down I-65 from Chicago: Jim Harbaugh, Troy Auzenne, Jay Leeuwenburg, Chris Gardocki, David Tate, even Richard Dent.

The Colts with Tobin as GM got to within a dropped Harbaugh pass in the end zone from reaching the Super Bowl after the 1995 season.

For the past two years Lovie Smith has been about the job of fixing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and in the process has created a newer version of “Bears Way, Way South.”

[MORE: Matt Forte hoping for respect from Bears next offseason]

Smith started with quarterback Josh McCown last year. That didn’t work out, but four former Bears have started games this season for Smith’s defense, which ranks one notch above the Bears at No. 11 in yardage allowed. That’s been with Chris Conte back at strong safety after his Chicago time ended after last year, and starting alongside former safety-mate Major Wright, on his second one-year contract with Smith and the Buccaneers.

“I loved Chris Conte early on; that’s why we drafted him [Bears third round, 2011),” Smith said. “We moved him into the starting lineup early on and love him being part of our team right now. ... He’s a little banged up right now (knee) but he hasn’t been all year. Just a good addition to what we’re trying to do here.”

(Of course it hasn’t been all “to” Tampa Bay from Chicago; Smith cut tackle Gabe Carimi last spring after taking over from Greg Schiano.)

Smith took the Bears from 5-11 his first year (2004) after succeeding Dick Jauron to winning the 2005 NFC North. He has taken the Buccaneers from 2-14 last season to six wins already.

[SHOP: Gear up, Bears fans!]

The foundation has been some of the same core principles Smith followed in Chicago.

“I think whenever you go to a new place, being in a new place for the first time, there has to be some similarities of just initial part of you installing your program and exactly how you want to win football games,” said Smith, similar to John Fox in seeking a defense/run-the-ball base.

“We were a lot better later on than we were early on when I went to Chicago. And that’s kind of how we are right now. Last year of course was a tough year for us. But we started building the program. We’re headed in the right direction. We’ve made a lot of strides. We’re going to eventually be a team that people have to deal with. I like our young ball club.”

Bears backfield ranked fourth-best in NFL

Bears backfield ranked fourth-best in NFL

The Chicago Bears have a really good problem in their backfield. Both Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen will demand touches in 2018 and are each starting-quality running backs. Howard is the more traditional first and second-down back while Cohen offers top-tier playmaking ability.

The duo is so talented that they were recently ranked the fourth-best backfield in the NFL.

The Chicago Bears' Jordan Howard has emerged as one of the NFL's top rushers. He finished his rookie season with 1,313 yards, second-most in the NFL. Last season, he rushed for 1,122 yards and 4.1 yards per carry even though Chicago had the league's least threatening passing attack (175.7 yards per game).

Howard isn't the only standout back on the roster, though. Tarik Cohen is a supremely talented runner and receiver and a perfect complement to Howard. Last season, he amassed 370 rushing yards, 53 receptions and 353 receiving yards.

The Bears' backfield was behind only the Rams, Saints and Chiefs.

Howard set Chicago's rookie rushing record with 1,313 yards in 2016 and became the first Bears running back to start his career with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He should be the Bears' primary back, but coach Matt Nagy expressed genuine excitement over Cohen's skill set which suggests he plans on getting him the ball quite a bit this season.

Regardless of how the touches play out, the Bears will present opposing defenses with one of the most challenging ground games in the NFL.

    Tarik Cohen was NFL's best big-play RB in 2017

    Tarik Cohen was NFL's best big-play RB in 2017

    Tarik Cohen's rookie season with the Chicago Bears was an impressive blend of running, receiving and special teams play. He quickly became a household name. The combination of his diminutive frame and oversized personality made him a fan favorite, especially when he started gaining yards in chunks.

    In fact, of all running backs with a minimum of 80 carries last season, Cohen had the highest percentage of runs that went for 15 or more yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Cohen will have a big role in new coach Matt Nagy's offense this season because of everything he offers a play-caller. He's a weapon as a receiver out of the backfield and can chew up yards on the ground like any traditional running back. He's a hold-your-breath talent who can turn a bad play into a touchdown in the blink of an eye.

    Cohen had 370 rushing yards, 353 receiving yards and three offensive touchdowns in what can be described as a limited role last year. John Fox and Dowell Loggains didn't seem to ever figure out how to best use Cohen's skill set. That should be no issue for Nagy and Mark Helfrich, the team's new offensive coordinator, who both bring a creative offensive approach to Chicago.

    Jordan Howard will be the starter and will do most of the heavy lifting. But Cohen is going to have a much bigger role than he had as a rookie, and that should result in more big plays and points on the board.