On catches, runs and returns, Bears know hidden value of Tarik Cohen

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Bears running back Tarik Cohen scampers away from the Bengals. (AP)

Rookie running back Tarik Cohen lost more than 100 yards on three plays in the last two games.

In Week 13, his 67-yard punt return in the fourth quarter, which got the Bears to the 49ers’ 16 and would’ve sealed a victory in an eventual loss, was nullified by Ben Braunecker’s illegal block.

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Last Sunday, Cohen thought he had a 35-yard touchdown run on the Bears’ first drive against the Bengals, but he stepped out at the 21.

“We gotta teach him where the white lines are,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said of Cohen, who stepped out on what would’ve been a game-winning Week 3 touchdown against the Steelers.

In the second quarter, Cohen’s 15-yard screen-pass touchdown was wiped out by Tom Compton’s illegal-block penalty.

For all of Cohen’s marvels this season — he’s the first NFL player in 42 years to have a rushing touchdown, a touchdown reception and a punt-return touchdown as well as throw a TD pass — there are even more that won’t show up on the stat sheet.

Not that the stats aren’t impressive. Cohen ran 12 times for a career-high 80 yards in Cincinnati, using a newfound patience he said he learned from watching Jordan Howard.

But perhaps the double teams Cohen draws every game as a receiver have the greatest impact. The attention he gets leaves his teammates, in theory, more open.

“Getting double-teamed, it says something,” Cohen said. “But if you’re not making plays while you’re double-teamed, it really doesn’t mean anything.”

Asked who has demanded similar attention from opponents, coach John Fox ticked off a list of stars: former Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith and Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and even, on defense, future Hall of Famers Julius Peppers and Von Miller.

“I don’t like trying to define guys,” Fox said, “but he’s an explosive guy that’s a tough matchup.”

Cohen said the list makes him want to work harder — “to get my name up there . . . I feel like I got a lot to prove.”

The threat of him as a punt returner — Cohen is eighth in the NFL with 230 yards, but he would be in second place had Braunecker not been whistled — has pressured the opposing punter.

Cohen, who muffed a rolling punt against the Buccaneers in Week 2, is learning to better grasp the subtleties of the job. Special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers praised Cohen not just for his returns against the Bengals, but for knowing when to not try to catch the ball.

“There’s some risk that he took earlier in the season,” Rodgers said. “I think he’s learned when and where to do that.”

He tries to channel the recently retired Devin Hester — whose film he watches for pointers — when he catches it. He watches his eyes and his feet.

“It’s not always how fast you’re running,” he said. “It’s using your speed when it needs to be used, when to hit full speed and when to set it up. Just those things that he was perfect at.”

When the Bears drafted Cohen in the fourth round, he assumed he’d play only special teams. Toward the end of his first season, he’s playing running back, wide receiver, returner — and even quarterback on a Wildcat play against Cincinnati.

That “mental capacity,” he said, has been his biggest area of growth.

“Learning a lot of different positions and learning what to do,” he said. “[To] be able to stay focused in the game.”

Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley.

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com

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