When Tarik Cohen was run out of bounds at the 49ers’ 16-yard line on an exhilarating 67-yard punt return in the fourth quarter Sunday that put the Bears in position for a knockout punch, he wasn’t happy.
“I felt like I needed to get into the end zone,” the rookie said. “It would have been a big play at a key moment.”
But as bad as Cohen felt, the worst was yet to come. An illegal block penalty on Ben Braunecker nullified the return. Instead of a first-and-10 at the 16, the Bears started at their 14 — a loss of 70 yards.
“When I got tackled, I was already deflated,” Cohen said. “So really it wasn’t that big of a letdown when I saw the flag. I felt like it was a flag anyway because I got tackled.”
Braunecker felt worse than Cohen.
“It’s a difficult situation,” he said. “It was a really big return that would have helped our offense out a lot. It’s unfortunate the flag came in. I think it was a tough call. But it’s not my place to say.”
Braunecker’s infraction, which occurred when Cohen was just ahead of him, wasn’t egregious and arguably did not impact the play. But the call appeared correct.
“It was a rush, so I was just a bonus blocker,” Braunecker said. “I just peeled off and looked for the nearest guy. I knew that it was a dangerous situation being in the trail position. I just tried to do my best to get in front of the guy.”
The ill-fated fourth-quarter return took the edge off Cohen’s spectacular 61-yard punt return for a touchdown that rivaled Devin Hester in terms of ridiculousness. Cohen was immediately hemmed in when he fielded the punt at the Bears’ 39 and retreated to his 24. Just when it looked like he would be tackled for an embarrassing 20-yard loss, he reversed direction, found a seam and knifed his way through the 49ers’ coverage unit for his first NFL return touchdown that gave the Bears a 14-6 lead with 5:39 left in the second quarter.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say we drew it up like that,” Cohen said in a tremendous understatement. “It was designed for me to get to the left somehow. They were really aggressive, so that’s why I had to take it that far back — to finally turn around and get back to the left side. When I got back [there], I had all my teammates there to escort me to the end zone.”
On a crazy-legs kind of play like that, Cohen almost escorted himself to the end zone.
“That was an incredible play on his part,” Braunecker said. “I don’t know how involved all the blockers were on that play. That was mostly Tarik Cohen, if not all of Tarik -Cohen.”
The daring Cohen is willing to, as teammate Dontrelle Inman told him, “lose five to get 55,” but this was even bigger than that. “Michael Burton, joked about it on the sideline — I ran like 150 yards to get 61,” Cohen said.
In the end, Cohen’s day typified the Bears’ plight — all that hope dashed by disappointment, and this coaching staff unable to get the most out of a special talent.
Cohen gained five yards on two rushes. He led the Bears with four receptions for 39 yards, including an impressive 21-yard play following the nullified punt in which he evaded three tacklers.
“We’ve been close,” he said. “It’s just one play here and there. That punt return really sums it up — just one little mistake can cost us the game.”
Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.